Doctor Atomic is an opera by the contemporary minimalist American composer John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars. It premiered at the San Francisco Opera on October 1, 2005. The work focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the test of the first atomic bomb (the "Trinity" test) was being prepared.
Plot and production
The first act takes place about a month before the bomb is to be tested, and the second act is set in the early morning of July 15, 1945 (the day of the test). During the second act, time frequently slows down for the characters and then snaps back into reality. The opera ends in the final, prolongued moment before the bomb is detonated. Although the original commission for the opera suggested that U.S. physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," be fashioned as a twentieth-century Doctor Faustus, Adams and Sellars deliberately attempted to avoid this characterization.
The work centers on Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert's wife, and her anxiety over her husband's project, set against tensions between key players in the Manhattan Project especially General Leslie Groves. Sellars adapted the libretto from primary historical sources. The libretto also quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, songs of the Tewa, the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, and the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser.
Doctor Atomic is similar in style to previous Adams operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, both of which explored the characters and personalities that were involved in historical incidents, rather than a re-enactment of the events themselves.
Much of the text from the opera adapted from declassified U.S. government documents and communications between the scientists, government officials, and military personnel that were involved in the project. Other borrowed texts include poetry by Baudelaire, John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser, the Bhagavad Gita, and from a traditional Tewa Indian song.
The opening chorus is an incomplete excerpt from the 1945 Smyth Report:
Act II is peppered with a repeated refrain from Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer's Tewa Indian housemaid. The text comes from a traditional Tewa song:
Would Oppenheimer have liked the opera?
The opera portrays Oppenheimer as respecting and fearing the bomb's power while remaining convinced that it needs to be used against civilian targets to make a profound psychological expression. There is no attempt to "explain" Oppenheimer or render him in simplistic terms. However, Robert Oppenheimer, the actual physicist, famously disliked opera, and was wary of dramatists who over-sentimentalized the story of his life. In response to Heinar Kipphardt's 1964 play, which portrayed Oppenheimer's 1954 security-clearance hearing and the moral questions about making the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer angrily told an interviewer:
San Francisco production
The original San Francisco Opera production was directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Donald Runnicles, with choreography by Lucinda Childs. It featured Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Kristine Jepson as Kitty Oppenheimer, Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves, James Maddalena as Jack Hubbard, Jay Hunter Morris as Captain James Nolan, Beth Clayton as the Oppenheimers' Tewa maid Pasqualita, and Seth Durant as Peter Oppenheimer (Robert Oppenheimer's son). Sets were designed by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Dunya Ramicova, lighting by James F. Ingalls, and sound by Mark Grey.
Kitty Oppenheimer's aria, "Easter Eve, 1945" was premiered by Audra McDonald in May, 2004 with the New York Philharmonic and Adams conducting. Two extracts from the work were performed in London in August 2004, conducted by John Adams as part of the 2004 Proms season.