The 'Downwinders' From Atomic Testing Get Deserved Attention The Santa Fe Opera is inviting "downwinders," locals affected by radiation from the testing of the first atomic bombs, on stage during performances of "Dr. Atomic."
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The 'Downwinders' From Atomic Testing Get Deserved Attention

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The 'Downwinders' From Atomic Testing Get Deserved Attention

The 'Downwinders' From Atomic Testing Get Deserved Attention

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In 1945, the people of southern New Mexico saw the flash of the first atomic bomb when it was tested at a place called the Trinity Site. They weren't warned, and they weren't protected from fallout. Six years later, the composer John Adams premiered "Doctor Atomic," his opera about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the bomb. But New Mexicans were largely ignored again. It's finally changed in a new production at the Santa Fe Opera. Here's Megan Kamerick of member station KUNM.

MEGAN KAMERICK, BYLINE: It's dress rehearsal at the Santa Fe Opera, and Tina Cordova is waiting for her cue.

TINA CORDOVA: We're downwinders. We're going to be onstage with the members of the actual cast.

KAMERICK: Downwinders are people who lived near the first nuclear explosion at the Trinity Site, and their descendants, like Cordova.

CORDOVA: There is not a single one of us onstage that isn't either a cancer patient dealing with a tumor or a cancer.

KAMERICK: The first bomb was tested in southern New Mexico near towns with Hispanic and Native American residents who say they were damaged by fallout. But unlike downwinders in other states, they've never received compensation.

CORDOVA: But then to be invited by Peter Sellars to participate in this opera has been outside of anything we could have ever imagined.

KAMERICK: Director Peter Sellars created the libretto for "Doctor Atomic." And ever since its premiere in 2005, he has wanted to bring it here.

PETER SELLARS: The subsequent history of what the nuclear age has done to the world is a story that has to be told from New Mexico and through the lives of people in this state.


KAMERICK: Before the opera begins, dancers from three Native American pueblos near Los Alamos, where the bomb was built, perform a sacred corn dance for healing.

MINA HARVIER: It's really amazing - truly blessed to be here.

KAMERICK: Mina Harvier is from Santa Clara Pueblo, which was polluted by activity at Los Alamos.

HARVIER: No one's ever come and asked, you know, what do you think? What do you have to say about this?

KAMERICK: The dancers exit and the opera begins.


KAMERICK: An enormous steel ball that represents the nuclear bomb looms ominously over the opera stage throughout the night. As action moves to the Trinity Site, Manhattan Project Director General Leslie Groves is indignant when the scientist Oppenheimer, Dr. Atomic, suggests evacuating nearby communities.


DANIEL OKULITCH: (As General Groves, singing) If I have to compromise security by sending an evacuation force into nearby towns, our cover's blown.

KAMERICK: Groves refused to tell people living less than 20 miles near the site about the detonation. Standing silently on stage, Tina Cordova and the downwinders listen.

CORDOVA: To hear the discussion around the consideration or the lack of consideration that was given to us as people, as human beings - it's difficult to hear.

KAMERICK: Then the countdown begins.


CORDOVA: I can tell you that during the last scene, it takes a lot to stay composed. The first time that we practiced it, most of us were in tears afterwards because it's a pretty intense scene.

KAMERICK: The stage goes dark. Mina Harvier of Santa Clara Pueblo says despite the harm, her people are resilient.

HARVIER: We're still going to be here no matter what happens. And our tradition, our songs, our dances are going to live on forever.

KAMERICK: Tina Cordova says she hopes this new production of "Doctor Atomic" makes audiences realize how many people were affected, unknowingly, by the creation of the bomb. For NPR News, I'm Megan Kamerick in Santa Fe.

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