Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic is an opera composed by John Adams with a libretto by Peter Sellars. The opera, which premiered in 2005, takes place in the weeks leading up to the Trinity Test, the first-ever detonation of a nuclear weapon. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, is the central character of the opera. Other historical figures involved in the Manhattan Project, including General Leslie Groves, Edward Teller, Robert R. Wilson, and Kitty Oppenheimer, are also represented.

In 1999, Pamela Rosenberg, then-director of the San Francisco Opera, approached Adams in the hopes of commissioning an “American Faust” focusing on Oppenheimer and the Los Alamos story. Initially, Adams was lukewarm to the idea. He said at an Atomic Heritage Foundation symposium in 2006 that Faust seemed “very much a German or European myth, and that we Americans, we really have our own separate mythology.” Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the Faust aspect, Adams did see the dramatic potential in the atomic bomb, which he characterized as the “ultimate American myth” in its own right. He agreed to go forward with the project.

Alice Goodman, librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, was slated to collaborate again with Adams on Doctor Atomic. However, she ultimately decided to leave the project, so Peter Sellars stepped in. Rather than writing original material, Sellars made the unconventional decision to assemble a libretto from a variety of sources. The libretto mixed direct quotations of Manhattan Project figures—as recorded in letters, declassified documents, and memoirs—with passages from various other texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, a Tewa Pueblo lullaby, and poetry by the likes of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and Muriel Rukeyser. 

Sellars and Adams have both justified the inclusion of poetry in the libretto on account of Oppenheimer’s well-known poetic disposition. As a Harvard student, Oppie was known to write and exchange sonnets with his friends as a way to relax. In a 1962 letter to General Leslie Groves, he references having had in mind Donne’s sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” when naming the Trinity Test. In Doctor Atomic, Adams and Sellars set the sonnet to music as a soliloquy for Oppenheimer at the end of Act I, on the eve of the Trinity Test. In a panel discussion supplementing the original San Francisco production, Sellars recalls finding in his research that Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer, frustrated by the secrecy required for life in Los Alamos, would often communicate with each other in code through Baudelaire quotes. Thus, Sellars and Adams chose to use a Baudelaire poem as the text for a love scene between the two.

One issue that Sellars and Adams encountered in creating Doctor Atomic was the bias of representation in the documentary record, which pays careful attention to the high-ranking white men working on the Manhattan Project, but provides little to no information on the lives of the women and racial minorities who were also present in Los Alamos. This bias permeates the collective cultural understanding of the Manhattan Project as well. As John Adams put it, “The narrative is really one of guys, the brilliant young scientists and the Army, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that there were many women here.”

In an effort to expand this narrative, Adams and Sellars included the characters of Kitty Oppenheimer and Pasqualita. In Doctor Atomic, Pasqualita is the Tewa nursemaid for Oppenheimers. Although there is no documentation of the Oppenheimer family having such a maid, many Tewa women were employed in domestic work in Los Alamos, so the inclusion of this character is plausible. In fact, her namesake was a real Pueblo woman who helped the McMillan family around the house in Los Alamos, and whom Elsie McMillan remembers fondly.

Where the archival record has left gaps, Sellars and Adams have filled them in with poetry. Lacking direct quotations from Kitty Oppenheimer, Sellars chose to have her speak through the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, a passionate, socially conscious poet and contemporary of the Oppenheimers. Sellars gives Pasqualita the text of a traditional Tewa lullaby as she sings the Oppenheimers’ baby to sleep on the eve of the Trinity Test.