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The Atlas of Fiction

Doctor Atomic

Music by John Adams
Libretto by Peter Sellars
drawn from historical sources
About Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic marked Adams' return to the traditional opera stage, after works like the pop-musical-influenced Ceiling/Sky and the stage/dance oratorio El Nino. In recognition of Adams' status as one of the preeminent composers of opera working today, Doctor Atomic has been produced at some of America's foremost opera companies, including the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as abroad in London and Amsterdam.

Cast of Characters
Edward Teller, bar J. Robert Oppenheimer, bar
Robert R. Wilson, t Katherine "Kitty" Oppenheimer, ms
General Leslie Groves, bass Jack Hubbard, chief meteorologist, bar
Captain James Nolan, t Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers' maid, ms

Act I

Scene 1

In late June, 1945, a chorus sings of their hopes and fears about the almost-completed atomic bomb being developed by the United States. At a meeting of the Trinity Project team working on the project, Edward Teller is concerned about the moral dimensions of the weapon they have created; Robert Oppenheimer is more concerned with completing the project.

Teller shows Oppenheimer a letter from Leo Szilard, protesting against the development of the atomic bomb; Robert Wilson tells Oppenheimer that he plans a meeting to discuss the effect of the bomb on society and shows him a petition to the President arguing that a first strike against Japan with atomic weapons cannot be justified. Teller disapproves, considering that political decisions should be left to the politicians and warning Wilson that he could get into trouble and that his petition will never reach the President. Oppenheimer reveals the list of projected targets, chosen for maximum psychological effect, and that the decision has been made that (also for psychological effect) the Japanese will be given no warning of the impending attacks.

Scene 2

In his living room, Oppenheimer is reading documents while his wife Kitty sings a love song that blossoms into a duet tinged with sorrow over the work Oppenheimer's group is doing.

Scene 3

At the Alamagordo test site, weather has delayed the testing of the first plutonium bomb. General Groves, the military commander of the project, pressures and threatens the meteorologist to approve the test or set a firm time when it can take place, but he refuses. Captain Nolan explains the dangers of plutonium, its effect on the body, and the dangers of radioactive rainfall and fallout that might follow a test in poor weather conditions. He also reveals that many of the scientists on the team are undergoing sever psychological stress, and Groves admits that he has gained weight during the project. Throughout, Oppenheimer provides cryptic philosophical observations, ending the scene with the sonnet by John Donne that inspired the name of the Trinity test site ("Batter my heart, three person'd God").

Act II

Scene 1

Kitty sings an extended setting of Muriel Rukeyser's poem Easter Eve 1945 ("Wary of time O it seizes the soul tonight"). It is followed by an extended orchestral interlude, labeled in the score as "Lightning in the Sangre de Cristos."

Scene 2

The Oppenheimers' seven-month-old daughter wakes up in the night, and their Tewa Indian maid sings her a lullaby. Meanwhile, Wilson and Hubbard worry about testing the bomb in the middle of the storm; Wilson is afraid that it will spontaneously detonate due to lightning while he is preparing it for the test, and Hubbard is still worried about fallout. Teller, meanwhile, discusses the possibility that a nuclear explosion might set the atmosphere itself on fire, encircling the globe in a sea of fire. Oppenheimer and Teller dismiss these concerns. The scientists apply suntan lotion as Hubbard reports that a test may be possible between dawn and sunrise. Oppenheimer orders the test for five-thirty.

Scene 3 (Countdown Part I)

The countdown begins with the Star-Spangled Banner, when a Voice of America radio signal gets crossed with the Trinity radio system. Groves worries that some of the scientists working on the program are not loyal enough, and plans to replace them. Kitty and Pasqualita sing to the Oppenheimers' five-year-old son, who has awakened in the night. Teller and the other scientists make bets and predictions about the yield the bomb will achieve. All but Teller, refusing to believe their own calculations, guess that the explosion will in fact be very small. The chorus ends the scene with a description of Vishnu, the creator and destroyer of the world, from the Bhagavad Gita.

Scene 4 (Countdown Part II)

Groves worries that Oppenheimer will break down at the last minute; Oppenheimer sings an arietta after Baudelaire about the seconds of the countown being replaced with eternity ("To what benevolent demon"). A green rocket gives the signal for the test to proceed. The scientists prepare for the final detonation as Kitty and Pasqualita sing songs of expectation, arrival and regret in the Oppenheimer home. The two-minute warning rocket sputters out prematurely, and as Oppenheimer sings, "Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart," the opera ends in the moments before the detonation. In the silence, a Japanese woman is heard begging for water for her child.

Videography Search for videos of Doctor Atomic at Amazon.com

John Adams

Doctor Atomic

Netherlands Opera/Renes

2 DVD / BBC/Opus (2008)

Last update: January 11, 2009