My article on John Adams and Peter Sellars's Doctor Atomic begins with a description of Trinity, the site of the first atomic explosion, which is also the setting for all but the first two scenes of Adams's opera. I visited Trinity on August 1st, and was given an expert tour by Jim Eckles, the affable public-relations officer for the White Sands Missile Range. Unless you provide some special reason to visit, the site is open to the public only twice a year. As it happens, the next Trinity Open House is this Saturday, the same day as the Atomic premiere. There's still time to arrange a live feed of the opera in the middle of the desert. The photograph above shows the site from a couple of miles away. The central blast circle, which can still be perceived because of a change in vegetation, is above and to the left of the apparent end of the road, which goes off to the right.
The White Sands mailboxes:
An instrument bunker, restored to 1945 condition:
Jumbo, a two-hundred-ton cement-and-steel monstrosity, was designed to stop the bomb’s plutonium core from being tossed all over the desert in the event that the explosion failed to achieve critical mass. Oppenheimer, confident in the end that his Gadget would work, elected not to use it. It survived the atomic blast, and, although Army engineers later blew off its ends, it has proved generally indestructible. A replica of it will appear on the Doctor Atomic stage.
I hold a piece of trinitite, the glassy-green mineral that
covered the ground after the blast. My grandfather, the geologist Clarence Samuel Ross, analyzed the substance in a
1948 paper for American Mineralogist. It is no longer radioactive — or,
at least, no more so than a granite countertop.
All that remains of the tower that held the bomb aloft:
Music critic standing next to the obelisk at Ground Zero:
The sixtieth anniversary of Trinity took place a couple of weeks before my visit. White Sands opened up the site for a special open house and brought down an extra original-edition bomb casing from Los Alamos. The drivers hadn't yet shown up to bring it back, so it was still sitting there. One assumes they'll cover it with a tarp before driving it down the highway — otherwise it might cause some alarm.
The MacDonald ranch, originally the Schmidt ranch, served as the final assembly site for the Gadget. Inside, a placard hangs from a bare light-bulb, reading "Plutonium Assembly Room."
At the northern edge of the site is LINEAR, the Lincoln Near Earth
Asteroid Research project, which scans the skies for objects that might cause a
regrettable Extinction Event.
On the way to Los Alamos from Santa Fe, you pass several Tewa Pueblo communities. A Tewa servant figures in Peter Sellars's spiritually charged version of the atomic story. Highway overpasses are decorated with boldly colored motifs, transforming infrastructure into art:
Grass Mountain is where Oppenheimer had his cabin (Perro Caliente, or "hot dog," which is what he said when he saw the view). It's in the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains, northeast of Santa Fe. On the eve of the
Trinity test, New York Times reporter William Laurence wrote
multiple advance stories, which were held in readiness for unforeseen
events. Acknowledging the possibility of a total catastrophe at
Trinity, Laurence prepared an obituary-style piece for all the major
participants and observers, himself included. This story would have
claimed that twenty celebrity physicists, General Leslie R. Groves, and
a New York Times reporter were killed in a "freak accident" at Perro Caliente.
A hard-to-find plaque commemorates 109 East Palace Avenue, the front
office of the Manhattan Project, where Dorothy McKibbin gave physicists
and other personnel their marching orders. The plaque is surrounded by
various handmade art objects, including a sort of death's-head shrine
to the Beatles.
Fuller Lodge was part of the original laboratory at Los Alamos. One great trivium of the atomic story is that this complex of buildings originally housed the Los Alamos Ranch School, which was founded by one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders. It was intended as a kind of boot camp for effete Eastern boys, who needed macho values knocked into them. The mission met with only fitful success: John Crosby, the founder of the Santa Fe Opera, was one graduate, and two others were Gore Vidal and William S. Burroughs. The headmaster was often observed lingering around the boys' shower room. He died shortly after the Manhattan Project took his school away.
Music is everywhere:
The view from Oppenheimer's old Berkeley home, on Eagle Hill:
There is, needless to say, quite a bit about the Bomb on the Internet. White Sands Missile Range has a library of information on its Trinity page, including eighty photos (the Trinity polo team is a particularly odd image). Reams of documentation can be found at the Atomic Archive. The San Francisco Opera has set up an extensive site for the opera, containing interviews with the creative team, images of the set and costume design, and musical excerpts in the form of MIDI mock-ups (which give only the faintest inkling of the richness of Adams's orchestration). You can also watch some footage from Jon Else's forthcoming documentary about the opera; Else made The Day After Trinity, the classic documentary about the test itself. Various Atomic-related events, including a film series at the Pacific Film Archive, will take place around the Bay Area over the next few weeks. The Exploratorium, which was founded by Robert Oppenheimer's brother Frank, has its own tie-in site. The San Francisco Opera will give ten performances of Doctor Atomic in all; later it will travel to the Holland Festival (June 2007), the English National Opera (March 2008), the Chicago Lyric Opera (April 2008), and, on an unannounced date, the Metropolitan Opera. Yes, things move fast in classical music. Presumably, Nonesuch Records will release a recording; the opera is dedicated to the enlightened head of that label ("for Bob Hurwitz — dear friend, reader of history").
Two excellent rival pieces on Doctor Atomic: Mark Swed's, in the Los Angeles Times, which follows Sellars as he goes on a tour of Los Alamos; and Matthew Gurewitsch's, in the New York Times, which reports on the flap that Adams caused among physicists after he set to music the partially obsolete laws of conservation of energy and mass. "Wagner didn't have these problems," Adams told me. (Yesterday, by the way, was the hundredth birthday of E=mc2.) I wrote a profile of Adams back in 2000. Please read my new piece before all these others, though, or you'll want to hear no more on the subject. Now all we need is for some snarky young composer to write an opera about the making of Doctor Atomic.
As ever, ardent thanks to Danny and Hilary Goldstine.