Calling ‘Doctor Atomic’: In Santa Fe, Peter Sellars Revisits the Bomb

An interview with the world’s undisputed leader of disruptive opera directing.

Doctor Atomic
Ryan McKinney as Robert Oppenheimer in Santa Fe Opera's "Doctor Atomic." Photo: Ken Howard.

I asked the legendary opera director Peter Sellars how he felt, now that his new production of Doctor Atomic, at Santa Fe Opera, was all wrapped up.

Doctor Atomic didn’t end last week,” he mused. “For me, Doctor Atomic began last week.”

I knew what he meant. Doctor Atomic, which premiered in 2005 at the San Francisco Opera, brings to life the heated exchanges and inner worlds of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer — the theoretical physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory known as “the father of the atomic bomb” — as well as his team of scientists and his wife, Kitty, in the 24 hours prior to the US Army’s first detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1945. Minimalist composer John Adams’ score, at once sinister and transcendent, is combined with Sellars’ libretto, which is curated from declassified government documents and poetry by Baudelaire and Donne that was personally meaningful to the polymath scientist. Layers of intense poignancy are thus woven together into a startlingly intimate experience that has stayed with me since.

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This new production’s physical proximity to where the bomb was born (one can see the lights of the sleeping Los Alamos from the opera house) enabled new realms of possibility — or, rather, reality. Sellars invited communities greatly impacted by the atomic test, but whose stories are told far less often, to collaborate. This included members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, most of whom have personally suffered from or lost loved ones to cancer caused by fallout radiation. These individuals first appeared onstage as the character of Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, explained coolly and militantly that the surrounding region would not be evacuated. At the time, the risk of fallout was described as unknown, but today we know better. The physical presence of the Downwinders, then, proved unspeakably powerful.

The Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Tesuque Pueblos also participated, joining together in a sacred Corn Dance onstage before each Doctor Atomic performance and again during its second act. Closing night (Aug. 16), pueblo leaders sang a song composed expressly for the occasion and marking the first instance of separate pueblos dancing together — and their most direct partnership yet with Santa Fe Opera (a venue built on Tesuque lands). This Doctor Atomic, then, was a rich story, one truly of this region.

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In person, Sellars conveys a warmth perhaps surprising from the world’s undisputed leader of disruptive opera direction. Easy peals of laughter punctuated streams of profundities.When I met him backstage after the closing performance, he wrapped me in a hug — his requisite greeting. To spend time with him is to begin to grasp an organic and dynamic relationship between fraternity, social action and art, which for him seem never to have been separate concepts in the first place.

The following is an excerpt from our dialogue, lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Downwinders and pueblo Indians had a powerful presence in this production. Behind the scenes, how else were voices heard in the creative process?

We all spent a lot of time together and began by telling stories of why they were here and what they were bringing with them and what changed in their lives because of nuclear power. The stories of the Downwinders are overwhelming. And not acknowledged in most of the official literature.

Of course, one of the great things when you make theater together is: we’re all together. The cast/singers were very much a part of every step with the Downwinders. The whole project is informed the other way: the Downwinders are taking in the intensity and courage and power of the performers, and the result is what happens in theater: a symbiosis of not just this element and not just that element but all these elements taken together, adding up to something that has an overwhelming effect and becomes part of your permanent memory.

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Spirituality is not only important in this opera but all across your work. Driving around New Mexico, you notice hilltop crosses here and there, quietly dotting the mountains. You’ve spoken before about the inherent spirituality of the desert. Add to that the presence of the Pueblo Indians and Downwinders, not to mention implications of idolatry. How do you experience spirituality in this work?

Götterdämmerung is a metaphor image for the end of the world, whereas obviously the human race, with the advent of nuclear weapons, is in a very different situation — there’s no metaphor. You’re living with it in a completely vivid and very intense way. At the same time, once you start going into the realm of creation and destruction, you’re moving past just a material understanding of the universe. Atomic weapons take you very, very deep into moral territory — not technical and not technological, but moral. Moral territory is about a spiritual grounding that lets you understand the difference between a right and wrong action and what its consequences are. Are you, in fact, blessing the world? Or are you endangering the world? And what are your motives?

All of those questions loom very large in this material; the presence of the Downwinders and the Pueblo Indians just intensifies that there are much larger stakes. The Pueblo Indians have created a culture and technology entirely about deepening and extending life and continuing the most profound and fragile elements of the life cycle. Corn only grows for a few weeks in New Mexico, and so you need rain at a very specific moment. So there’s an entire technology of dancing to invite rains to come. And that dialogue with the natural and supernatural worlds is something that our highly materialistic culture doesn’t grasp.

Doctor Atomic is a kind of ceremony that takes those issues and says they’re not abstract in our age of post-nuclear proliferation and the extended crisis of climate change. We’re in a very serious question of how we engage as a human race with nature, and, in fact, how do we understand ourselves as part of nature and not beyond it or above it or next to it or having a purely exploitative mechanistic attitude.

Oppenheimer’s levels of spirituality are pretty complex; he was living in an era where science was the new god. What it meant for him to name the test site “Trinity” — that’s a pretty challenging thing to name a nuclear test site. What it meant that after the blast and Hiroshima he quoted endlessly to the world the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu sacred text — it just means this sacred dimension was profoundly on the minds of Oppenheimer and plenty of the other scientists. It finds a really important place in the opera. And with John Adams, so many of the operas that we’ve made do have a sacred dimension to them. Not to say, in any way pretentious, but we’re in that territory of very real moral questions and you need some kind of spiritual grounding.

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If Oppenheimer were to contact you from the dead, what would you ask him?

I admire him deeply, but in another way I’m grateful never to have met him. I mean, I would be a little embarrassed. There are now four or five major biographies of him, 500 pages long, and some amazing books like An Atomic Love Story, a book of the other women in his life. The historical record is detailed and people have really dug into it. For me, it’s more that Oppenheimer is like Hamlet or Oedipus Rex. He’s a figure that belongs to the ages now. It’s not about this or that personal tick. His presence, his being go beyond the details of his biography on earth. And in the same way you want to see a whole range of people play Hamlet, and you’re not going to narrow Hamlet to one set of possibilities, that is how I feel about Oppenheimer.

You assembled the libretto, in part, from declassified government documents. What did you find in those sources that surprised you the most?

The vigorousness, intensity and depth of debate among the scientists in the month after the Germans surrendered. What are they doing? In what way should a nuclear weapon be used? What have they really brought into the world? The intensity of that debate is very powerful and very moving.

We’re in a similar situation now. Topics are so beyond the grasp of the average citizen that it is absolutely necessary that scientists speak out and have a public presence. We’re now in yet another time when science is being excluded from the national conversation. It’s extremely important for all life on earth that scientists are at the table. Oppenheimer is an extraordinary example of a scientist as a public figure, and Edward Teller is a contrasting example. We’re obviously living with more of the Teller world right now, and so these possibilities are right now urgently in front of us.

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As a director, what is your responsibility to contemporary politics? Is it possible to overstep in service to the work or to the people?

Everybody who’s alive at this minute has a responsibility to try and enhance and deepen and protect and extend life in whatever field is your field. Your responsibility to the human race is larger than your responsibility to your field. Who really cares whether some opera is interpreted this way or that way? I mean, for God’s sake. Are those truly your only stakes of life on earth? It’s just ridiculous. For people that are narrow and just silly, it’s a pathetic statement that nothing in life matters more than your opera world. And the opera world is not more important than the world. The opera world is one way of trying to understand and address the world. And that is why opera was invented and that’s what opera does and is capable of.

I would go in the opposite direction from your question. Is it possible — in fact, it’s pretty typical — that most presentations of opera are anemic and missing exactly the crucial vitamins that the art form exists to embody?

As a classical musician, that resonates. What can the next generation of artists do to reclaim this?

This material will only survive if its content is allowed to speak. Every era has its own taste in music and fashion and its own news cycle. The aspects of life that are contemporary and up-to-the-minute have some kind of interesting symbiosis and equilibrium with the aspects of our lives that are actually unchanging or unfolding across centuries. Classical music can have its space between the two. That space needs to be dynamic space.

What was on the move in this morning’s headlines, what was on the move in fifth century Athens or first century Tibet or Africa three millennia ago — Africa a millennium from now, Africa this week. All those things are in play in classical culture, because we’re asked, as artists, to speak with the weight of history and the cumulative knowledge of our ancestors, and to speak in a prophetic voice offering a way forward about things that have not yet happened. That’s the job description. To locate your practice in any one century or moment is fairly short-sighted when the art form itself exactly transcends time periods.

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What is your responsibility to the creator or author of a work? When do you need to relinquish control to their vision? Is it possible to go too far?

Like anything in life, it’s possible to go too far and be stupid and do something obvious or meretricious or cheap or whatever. It’s about the depth of friendship that you have with another human being. Ideally, you’re hoping for a friendship where neither of the parties remains the same across that friendship, but open each other’s lives to possibilities that were not there before. How deeply you’re in dialogue with Mozart is about asking Mozart a question in such a way that Mozart’s response is really surprising and alive. As with any friendship, there are certain questions that are not that helpful to ask, and other questions that open up universes, unexpected universes, unexpected depths and dimensions, and meanings and visions.

I hate thinking of [operas] in a materialistic way: some thing, some object… It’s a living being that’s still alive and still thinking and manifesting in all kinds of ways, with all kinds of possibilities. It has nothing to do with what it looked liked once. Mozart is not alone in that most composers did not live to see their works done well in their lifetime. In fact, most composers have to defy the period they’re born in. It’s just ghastly, the idea that we’re going to put them back in jail and make them go back to the period they spent their whole lives trying to transcend. Most of the great composers were writing for people not yet born.

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This production of Doctor Atomic brought together so many different communities around this historical event of the test. What happens now?

Classical music and Pueblo culture traditions do have rules that need to be understood and respected. The brilliance of those rules being understood also is what makes, for example, sports so exhilarating. In soccer, you can suddenly say, “Oh, I’m going to to pick up the ball with my hands!” You can score a goal — but you destroy the sport. A lot of things in life are the same. Some rules, of course, are worthless and need to be questioned, revised, re-imagined. Other rules are moral rules, rules about treating each other correctly, treating the environment correctly. That correct behavior is what music is about. In music, it’s understood that there are certain things you do and don’t do as a blues singer. And if you get that wrong, you’re making something horrible. Those are ethical considerations. And so the history — that future — of Pueblo practices are sacred and have this ethical dimension, which is part of why they have such longevity. I think that is the longevity of a Mozart or Beethoven symphony. It’s not the tune that people just like to keep hearing. It’s the ethical power or presence that gives that music its longevity.

What started this summer with Doctor Atomic is something that cannot be stopped. It’s now a set of relationships in place. Now people have taken steps and made a new chapter in their own traditions. There are so many worlds that are now open that were not open two months ago. Conversations that are now open and engaged and relationships that are now open and engaged. And so, what we’re looking to is a future — not a past. That’s why it’s always so weird to me that people want to focus their discussion of classical culture exclusively on the past when you don’t get that, no, what we’re actually doing is creating a future. That’s what this material was always about.

It’s just like in the great Buddhist caves in Dunhuang, in China. Every cave has the Buddha of the present and the Buddha of the future, who is there to say “What are you going to do next?” Because that’s the question for our generation. A Mozart symphony is a way of thinking about what you’re going to do next, but it was always Mozart asking you that same question: “What are you going to do next?”

The best music and best art has a really profound moral intensity and clarity embedded in its core. That’s why we recognize some works as more powerful than others. Some works of culture are purely decorative, others foundational. And that’s about their moral content. It’s the difference between Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf — who wrote nice music — and Mozart, who was trying to reimagine the world.