John Adams’ Atomic Opera



John Adams
Photo by Christina Alicino
Courtesy Nonesuch Records

Last week, the San Francisco Opera announced that John Adams has been commissioned for a full-length opera called Doctor Atomic based on the life of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, developer of the atomic bomb. Adams will collaborate with poet/librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars, who were also involved in his two previous operas Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1992). The opera is scheduled to premiere in September 2005 at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House under the baton of SFO Musical Director Donald Runnicles.

The structure of the opera, as it stands in the early planning stages, begins in Los Alamos, NM, where the Manhattan Project led by Oppenheimer set out to develop the atomic bomb in the early 1940s. The second act shows Oppenheimer’s descent from influence as he is accused of having ties with the communist intelligentsia, falls out of favor in Washington, and eventually is stripped of his security clearance in 1954.

SFO General Director Pamela Rosenberg approached Adams with the idea for the opera over two years ago and it was originally conceived of to be part of a retrospective of operas and stage works that use the Faust myth as a point of departure. Although some parallels exist between Faust, a scholar and scientist who signed his soul and body away to the devil, and Oppenheimer who was indebted to the United States government, Adams has reservations about trying to fit Oppenheimer’s story into the Faust formula too tightly. “Ever since I started working with the dramatic works like Nixon in China,” he explains, “I’ve really felt that America has its own mythology and it’s really quite different than what the Europeans have.”

Furthermore, he cites figures and images that are prominent in American popular culture, the news media, and US history as the major informants of this distinct mythology. The title “Doctor Atomic” was conceived of to capture the culture of America in the 1950s, an imitation of the sensationalistic sci-fi movie titles of the era. “We have to realize that this happened during the same time as pompadour haircuts and TV dinners and large cars and the advent of television and American popular culture,” he says. The title also alludes to both Dr. Faustus and Dr. Strangelove, two fictitious characters that resonate with Oppenheimer, whom Adams describes as “the scientist who’s a genius and gets into a very complicated situation because of his genius and also because of his arrogance.”

“There are so many powerful archetypes involved in this story,” Adams observed. “The archetype of the atomic bomb alone has probably got to be one of the greatest myths and images that have come about in the history of human consciousness, so that right there is quite overwhelming.”

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The results of Oppenheimer’s work—Nagasaki, August 9, 1945

Challenged with a deeply serious topic, Adams strives for a certain amount of levity in his approach to the score. “It is such an awful theme, the idea of nuclear annihilation, that if I tried to meet it head on with some terribly daunting, serious libretto and the tonality of it were ultra, ultra serious the work would be bound to be stillborn.” As with his two previous operas that both deal with important historical events he ultimately wants to create a work that balances the profundity of the story with high entertainment. “My goal in all of my stage works has been to deal with very deep issues, very complex moral and spiritual issues, but to do so with a certain Mozartean lightness of touch.” He has certainly been able to achieve this with his past works including the two operas and On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the victims of September 11.

Especially considering today’s political climate, this “lightness of touch” will be key in making the production palatable to an American audience. With U.N. weapons inspectors poking around in Iraq for evidence of nuclear weapons and Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, stating that the United States will not hesitate to use nuclear force if it is deemed necessary, the prominence of nuclear arms in the media is higher now than it has been since the end of the Cold War. “Suddenly we’re now back in a position where we were around 1952, right around the time when Doctor Atomic takes place,” Adams notes. “So this work is probably going to have some very disturbing resonances with what’s going on right now.”