Great moments in opera: Doctor Atomic

April 11, 2011

If you’ve heard John Adams’ music before, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here; it sounds just like him. Adams is often grouped together with the other American minimalists, like Philip Glass or Terry Riley, but his music is warmer and more human than theirs. Much of the interest is in the rhythms, and Adams’ rhythms are those of dancers, not machines. In fact there is quite a bit of dancing in this opera.

Doctor Atomic is set near the close of the Second World War, in the hours leading up to the first atomic bomb test. It is peopled by the scientists and soldiers of Los Alamos — Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and General Groves among them — and, presumably on the grounds that one cannot have an opera with no female characters (although it has been done, and done well), Kitty Oppenheimer and her Pueblo Indian housemaid also appear. Now, there is a certain risk in writing an opera about an event in modern history, such events being generally remote from the legendary or romantic subjects that are grand opera’s native turf, but that night in the New Mexico desert, when the raw destructive power latent in nature was unleashed for the first time, is worthy of the treatment, and it must be said that Adams, along with his collaborator, Peter Sellers, go to it with admirable seriousness and creative ambition.

As is fitting, there is a sense of foreboding that hovers over the entire work, as though these men and women stand on the brink of a precipice. The dramatic arc of the opera, in fact, brings us right up to the edge, and allows us to peek over. One cannot put a nuclear detonation on-stage and do it justice, so Adams and Sellers wisely leave the culmination of the drama largely to the imagination.

A peril, for English speakers, of listening to operas composed in English is that one can understand the words. Even by the lacklustre standards characteristic of opera libretti over the centuries, the libretto of Doctor Atomic has its problems. Peter Sellers was largely responsible for putting it together, and his basic approach was praiseworthy: he compiled most of it from the actual surviving writings of the men and women involved in the Manhattan project. This gives the words a certain weight, commanding respect, that they would not otherwise have. The trouble is that these scientists were not poets, and their prose — sometimes clunky, sometimes wordy, and often littered with technical jargon — can sound awkward when sung. For example, at one point Robert Oppenheimer sings:

We asked Bethe about your numbers.
His calculations showed
that even the extreme pressures and temperatures
reached in the interior of our explosion
will not be high enough
to fuse the hydrogen with either
nitrogen or helium.
The Gadget won’t set fire to the atmosphere.

Adams faced a formidable challenge trying to make that sort of thing sound musical. This preponderance of prose also means that the bulk of the opera consists of something like recitative. Mixed into the prose are a few sections of poetry, from Baudelaire and Donne, from the Bhagavad Gita, and from an American poet named Muriel Rukeyser, which give Adams an opportunity to flex his lyric muscles. I consider these sections a mixed bag. Inclusion of the Bhagavad Gita is well-motivated; it was a favourite of Oppenheimer’s, and he famously quoted from it in the aftermath of the bomb tests. The Donne poem (“Batter my heart, three person’d God”) is more tenuously related to the story, but Adams’ setting is one of the highlights of the entire work, so I appreciate that it was included. Some of the other poetry, however, is quite bad, and I confess that I winced from time to time.

On balance, however, Doctor Atomic is an impressive achievement. The subject is worthy, and though the libretto sometimes lets it down, Adams sets the clunky words about as well as can be expected. The orchestral music is thoroughly appealing. As modern operas go, this is about as good as it gets.


There are not many clips of this opera available for viewing, so my choices of “great moments” are correspondingly limited. To give a representative flavour of the music, here is an orchestral interlude, with dancing. This is vintage Adams: very rhythmic, with a slick sheen on the music. The singer at the beginning is Gerald Finley, singing Oppenheimer.

My favourite section of the opera is Oppenheimer’s recital of Donne’s great Holy Sonnet. This comes right at the end of the first half. Dramatically this segment is not without problems — the uncompromising religious fervour of the poem is orthogonal to the opera’s other concerns — but simply considered on its own merits, as a setting of a great poem, it is a pleasure to hear.  These two clips together cover most of the poem:

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