Doctor Atomic

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Doctor Atomic
Opera by John Adams
Composer John Adams, 2008
LibrettistPeter Sellars
1 October 2005 (2005-10-01)

Doctor Atomic is an opera by the contemporary 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. In 2007, a documentary was made about the creation of the opera, titled Wonders Are Many.[1]

Composition history[edit]

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 16, 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, prolonged moment before the bomb is detonated. Although the original commission for the opera suggested that U.S. physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," be fashioned as a 20th-century Doctor Faustus, Adams and Sellars deliberately attempted to avoid this characterization. Alice Goodman worked for two years with Adams on the project before leaving, objecting to the characterization of Edward Teller, as dictated by the original commission.[2][failed verification]

The work centers on key players in the Manhattan Project, especially Robert Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and also features Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert's wife. Sellars adapted the libretto from primary historical sources.[citation needed]

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.[3]


Much of the text from the opera was adapted from declassified U.S. government documents and communications among the scientists, government officials, and military personnel who were involved in the project.[citation needed] Other borrowed texts include poetry by Charles Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, and a traditional Tewa Indian song.[4]

Opening chorus

Marvin Cohen, professor of physics at UC Berkeley and president of the American Physical Society at the time, criticized some parts of the libretto for not being strictly scientifically correct,[5] in particular the original opening lines which were excerpted from the 1945 Smyth Report:

"Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form."

Following Cohen's criticism, Adams rewrote the opening chorus,[citation needed] so that it now reads:

We believed that
"Matter can be neither
created nor destroyed
but only altered in form."
We believed that
"Energy can be neither
created nor destroyed
but only altered in form."
But now we know that
energy may become matter,
and now we know that
matter may become energy
and thus be altered in form.

Conclusion of act 1

The aria, sung by Oppenheimer, uses text from Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; For you
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe
Shine, and seek to mend;
Batter my heart, three person’d God;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The act 2, scene iii chorus

This was borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita (translated into English by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood)[citation needed] and reads:

At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.

When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.

Act 2 traditional Tewa song

This act is peppered with a repeated refrain from Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers' Tewa Indian housemaid. The text comes from a traditional Tewa song, and subsequent reiterations repeat the text with the direction changed to west, east, and south:[4]

In the north the cloud-flower blossoms
And now the lightning flashes
And now the thunder clashes
And now the rain comes down! A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.

Performance history[edit]

Subsequent productions[edit]

In June 2007 this production made its European première at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. It then opened in December 2007 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, again directed by Sellars, with Finley and Owens reprising their roles. Adams and Sellars made "some significant changes" to the opera and production in response to feedback from the San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Chicago productions.[6]

A new production of the opera, directed by the film director Penny Woolcock and conducted by Alan Gilbert, was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York[7] in October 2008 and was part of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series on November 8, 2008. The assistant conductor for this production was also Donato Cabrera. The HD video of the production was later televised nationally on PBS as well, in the Great Performances at the Met series in December 2008. On January 17, 2009, the Met production of the opera was heard on NPR as part of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Penny Woolcock's production was restaged by the English National Opera in London, February 25 to March 20, 2009 with Gerald Finley reprising his portrayal of the lead.[8] The 2008 Met production was streamed online on June 23 and December 8, 2020.[9]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, October 1, 2005
(Conductor: Donald Runnicles)
J. Robert Oppenheimer baritone Gerald Finley
Kitty Oppenheimer mezzo-soprano or soprano Kristine Jepson
Gen Leslie Groves bass Eric Owens
Edward Teller dramatic baritone Richard Paul Fink
Robert R. Wilson tenor Thomas Glenn
Frank Hubbard[n 1] baritone James Maddalena
Captain James Nolan tenor Jay Hunter Morris
Pasqualita mezzo-soprano or contralto Beth Clayton
  1. ^ Hubbard's first name is also given as "Jack" in some sources.

Adams had written the role of Kitty Oppenheimer for the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. However, she was unable to commit to the project due to her health (she died soon after the work premiered). The work was sung in the world premiere by mezzo Kristine Jepson.[10] For the second major production, at De Nederlandse Opera, Adams reworked the role for a soprano, Jessica Rivera.[11] For the Metropolitan Opera Premiere, the role was again sung by a mezzo, Sasha Cooke.[3]

Doctor Atomic Symphony[edit]

In 2007, Adams adapted the opera into the Doctor Atomic Symphony. Music was taken from the overture, various interludes and orchestral settings were made of arias like Oppenheimer's signature "Batter My Heart." The work was first premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the composer on August 21, 2007, at a BBC Proms concert. The work was later performed at Carnegie Hall in Spring 2008. Originally composed in four movements and lasting 45 minutes, the symphony was revised by Adams to just three movements (played without a break) and 25 minutes' length. This version was recorded in 2008 by the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson and released by Nonesuch Records on July 20, 2009.[12][13]


  • 2008: DVD widescreen DTS sound; or Blu-ray widescreen Dolby True HD sound with Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer; conductor: Lawrence Renes; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus; Studio: Opus Arte
  • 2012: Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording-winning audio recording with Gilbert, Finley, Cooke, Fink, Glenn, Metropolitan Opera, 2008 Sony
  • 2018: Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording-Nominated Official audio recording with Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock, Jennifer Johnston, Brindley Sherratt, Andrew Staples, Marcus Farnsworth, Aubrey Allicock, BBC singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams, 2018 Nonesuch Records

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Mixing Art and Science to Get Doomsday", New York Times, by Stephen Holden, May 30, 2008
  2. ^ Murray, Jenni (August 22, 2005). Curate and Librettist: An Interview with Alice Goodman. BBC. Retrieved March 4, 2014.
  3. ^ a b "The Met in HD, Doctor Atomic, 2008" by Timothy Robson, bachtrack, 1 December 2013
  4. ^ a b Songs of the Tewa by Herbert J. Spinden, 1933, reprinted by Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1997
  5. ^ "Libretto takes liberties with fundamental physics: Professor's technical concerns fall on deaf ears", The Berkeleyan September 22, 2005
  6. ^ Tommasini, Anthony, "Doctor Atomic: Tweaking a Definitive Moment in History", The New York Times, December 17, 2007 (Retrieved February 9, 2009)
  7. ^ Westphal, Matthew, "Met and ENO to Collaborate on Productions of Adams's Doctor Atomic, New Golijov Opera", Playbill Arts, August 15, 2007
  8. ^ Andrew Clements, Doctor Atomic, The Guardian (London), 26 February 2009. (Retrieved March 4, 2014)
  9. ^ "Week 15". Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  10. ^ "Doctor Atomic – Countdown" by Alex Ross, 3 October 2005; also published in The New Yorker, October 3, 2005, pp. 60–71
  11. ^ Doctor Atomic, The Netherlands Opera recording
  12. ^ Doctor Atomic Symphony on Adams' website Archived June 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Doctor Atomic Archived February 17, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, details of the opera on Adams' website

External links[edit]