It’s fitting, then, that “Doctor Atomic,” an opera about Oppenheimer and the Trinity test now being performed at the Santa Fe Opera, is a mishmash of references and quotations. The libretto, by Peter Sellars, quotes letters, technical documents and poems. With music by John Adams, it follows Oppenheimer and other members of the Manhattan Project as they work to finish the bomb and grapple with its destructive potential.
The opera isn’t new: It debuted in 2005. Santa Fe is a unique place to experience it, though. The work is performed in an open-air theater that looks toward Los Alamos, where the bomb was developed, and the Trinity test took place near Alamogordo in the southern part of New Mexico.
People who lived near the test site say they have been diagnosed with cancer and thyroid-related diseases that they attribute to radiation from the testing. Residents of those areas call themselves Downwinders, and some of them are part of the show’s cast. So are Los Alamos National Laboratory workers and people from New Mexico’s Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Tesuque pueblos. They perform a sacred dance during the opera and conduct a ceremony before every show.
As the lights of Los Alamos sparkle in the distance, the audience experiences a countdown to the detonation of a bomb that ushered in our uneasy modern era. “Doctor Atomic” runs through Aug. 16.