The doctor is in


Friday evening marked the Chicago premiere of Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera. A far cry from The Barber of Seville and La bohème, two other shows slated for the Lyric's 2007–08 season, Doctor Atomic is sung in English, with lyrics like "Matter can neither be created nor destroyed but only altered in form."

Set in summer 1945—almost three years after Enrico Fermi and his team of scientists set off the first controlled nuclear chain reaction beneath Stagg Field's west stands—the opera follows J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) and a team of Manhattan Project physicists and military officers as they work on the final construction stages of the top-secret A-bomb, leading up to the bomb's first test on July 16, 1945. As central as science is to the show's premise are the moral questions raised by the bomb; in the first act, scientist Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn), Fermilab director from 1967 to 1978, organizes a meeting in the lab to discuss the implications of "the gadget" (the bomb's code word). He urges his peers to sign a petition to the Truman Administration: "Atomic attacks on Japan cannot be justified until we make clear the terms of peace and give them a chance to surrender."

The three-hour, 17-minute production, which runs at the Lyric through January 19, 2008, was composed by John Adams and directed by Peter Sellars, a duo known for productions based on historical events—their first, Nixon in China, showed the meeting between Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon, and their 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, was inspired by the Middle East conflict.


Photos: Top: J. Robert Oppenheimer in the Manhattan Project team's Los Alamos, NM, lab; bottom: Robert Wilson (in red) proposes a petition to Oppenheimer.

Photos by Dan Rest, courtesy Lyric Opera

December 17, 2007