The Nuclear Option

An original opera about the makers of the atomic bomb fails to ignite

Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Terrence McCarthy
Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In his reconstruction of the mysterious 1941 meeting between the atomic scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Copenhagen, British playwright Michael Frayn conveyed a vision of moral turmoil that Sellars and Adams largely fail to achieve. Comparing a three-character stage play to a full-scale opera featuring 13 characters, a battalion-size chorus, and a full pit orchestra isn't necessarily helpful, but I draw the comparison to illustrate how the theme of the development of nuclear power can become a work that's at once epic and intimate. Regardless of the physical staging, the detonation scene in Doctor Atomic should be a moment of reckoning; it should feel like a trapdoor opening into a terrible new hell. Instead, by the time the countdown is complete, Adams and Sellars' fuse is well and truly spent.

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