Directed by Peter Sellars and with a score by John Adams, the San Francisco Opera's premiere of Doctor Atomic on October 1 will reveal one of most earthshaking themes for any production: the conflicted dramatic events that led up to the first atomic bomb tests in New Mexico in 1945.
Costume designer Dunya Radicova says she completely absorbs the material as a starting point, especially when she works with Sellars. “We don't try to impose an idea on the material; the material is always directing us,” she says. “There was a tremendous amount of research because we had to know as much as possible about what it might have been like to have been there. Some of the documents have been declassified recently.”
She began her research at a museum in Albuquerque, NM, that has materials connected to the Manhattan Project. She also went to a mineral museum to see the types of minerals that would be in the same area. “I looked at the minerals that you find there, just for colors, and collected rocks, leaves and vegetation as close to Alamogordo as I could get,” she explains. “I think that most of my work, whatever strength it has, it's the sense of color that I treasure. The Manhattan Project, when you read the official documents, is all about secrecy. But these people did nothing but take pictures of each other. They had photos of everything. I sketched it, I did designs and renderings, but they are totally out of these amazing sources of hundreds of photographs. The scientists, even the ones who had enlisted in the Army, were just not following any kind of military protocol.”
Those photos were a great resource for her designs, especially considering how the military men would stray from their official dress. “At Los Alamos, you would see people wear Docksider shoes with their uniform, or not wear the right shirt, or wear jeans with an Army shirt. Even the MPs were really relaxed,” she says. “We have some men in overalls, some in coveralls, some in Army fatigues, some in shorts, some a mixture of the two. Then we have civilian engineers in their various blue jeans and torn tee shirts. Some of them wore hair caps or goggles. And then we have people who actually wore blue jeans. For the Army clothing, we're planning to do fabric painting of them all together to distress them. There are other colors, like for the scientists' wives. Theirs is a sort of a purplish grey kind of palette, giving a little bit of heaviness.”
For Oppenheimer, however, he was always in a suit, at least according to the photos Radicova found. “Peter's idea was that this was to give him a silhouette that was recognizable from a distance,” she says. “He also wore a hat that was his own invention. We are even putting in a little bit, here and there, of some of Hollywood's image of the war, in essence to make a connection for the audience, because that's what they know more than the reality.”
This is the second installment of a multi-part series on the design of John Adam's opera, Doctor Atomic. Next month: Sound Design with Mark Grey.