‘Doctor Atomic’ Brings Opportunities To Show Off Los Alamos

A bronze bust of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, is on display in the Los Alamos History Museum as part of a photographic exhibit on his life. The exhibit opens June 7 and runs through the end of August. Courtesy photo


By Heather McClenahan
Executive Director
Los Alamos Historical Society

With The Santa Fe Opera showing for the first time Doctor Atomic, a contemporary opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the world’s first atomic bombs, the Los Alamos Historical Society has a number of opportunities to share our community’s history.

The opera, by composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars, premiered in San Francisco in 2005 and has been seen around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Netherlands, and Finland. (Art Freed, the former librarian at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a former board member of the Los Alamos Historical Society, has seen it at every venue!)

Most of the opera’s text was taken from historic documents, such as communications between the scientists and the military, as well as sources Oppenheimer famously quoted, such as poet John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita.

Many organizations are hosting events to coincide with the opera. The New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe will open an exhibit, Atomic Histories, on June 3 that explores everything from the history of Los Alamos to uranium mining in Grants and the proposed new nuclear waste storage facility in Southeastern New Mexico.

The Los Alamos Historical Society will also host several events. The first is at 5 p.m. Thursday, June 7, when the exhibit J. Robert Oppenheimer: Photographs From His Life, 1904-1967 opens at the Los Alamos History Museum.

The exhibit, curated and owned by the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, includes 50 photographs from the Oppenheimer family, Harvard, Princeton, the California Institute of Technology, the Los Alamos Historical Society, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s a remarkable look at Oppenheimer through time.

After the exhibit opening, guests will be invited to move to Fuller Lodge, where there will be a showing at 6 p.m. of Wonders Are Many, a documentary by filmmaker Jon Else about the making of Doctor Atomic.

Doctor Atomic opens on July 14, and The Santa Fe Opera is hosting a symposium exploring themes such as art and history on July 13 and 14. More information is available at (https://www.santafeopera.org/discover/symposium/tech-and-the-west).

For visitors traveling to Santa Fe just for the opera, the Historical Society, in conjunction with the Friends of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (Los Alamos site) and the Bradbury Science Museum Association is hosting Secret & Scenic: Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos. A tour bus will leave at 3 p.m. from the Opera’s parking lot.  

Georgia Strickfaden, owner of Atomic City Tours, will regale visitors with stories on the way up to the “The Hill.” Upon reaching Los Alamos, visitors will have a chance to tour the Los Alamos History Museum, the Bradbury Science Museum, and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Visitor Contact Station.

Visitors will then enjoy dinner in historic Fuller Lodge. Historical character Dorothy McKibbin, the gatekeeper to Los Alamos, will talk about her experiences at 109 East Palace, the starting point for all Manhattan Project civilians, and her relationship with Oppenheimer. After dinner, visitors will hop back on the tour bus, drive past Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos home, and arrive in time for the Santa Fe Opera performance of “Doctor Atomic.”

For those from Los Alamos, the Society is hosting Los Alamos Goes to the Opera Aug. 7, a garden party at the historic Hans Bethe House and bus ride to the opera. Tickets are almost sold out!

Other events, such as lectures, panel discussions, tours, and immersive theater experiences are being planned in Santa Fe and elsewhere.

Keep an eye on the Historical Society’s website throughout the summer for more information, (www.losalamoshistory.org/doctoratomic.html).