The activities in this guide address several aspects of Doctor Atomic:
The unusual documentary nature of its libretto
Aspects of contemporary music as represented in its score
The impulse to depict a significant historical event through opera
Creative decisions made by the composer, the librettist, and the artistsvof the Metropolitan Opera in this particular production
The guide seeks not only to acquaint students with Doctor Atomic, but also to encourage them to think more broadly about opera—and the performing arts in general—as a means of personal and philosophical expression. Little prior knowledge is required for the activities.
Oppenheimer's Voices: A Close Look at the Influence of World Literature
The libretto of Doctor Atomic is very unusual. Instead of writing dialogue, Peter Sellars arranged excerpts from historical documents about the development of the atomic bomb and from works literature associated with the characters’ real-life models. For instance, most of what audiences hear from Kitty Oppenheimer, the protagonist’s wife, is poetry written by Muriel Rukeyser, an American poet who was about the same age and shared many of the views and beliefs of the historical Kitty (see the Musical Highlight, Song of the Eternal Feminine, below). Much of Edward Teller’s dialogue is drawn from that scientist’s memoirs.
In the case of “Doctor Atomic” himself, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Sellars draws primarily from three vastly different sources, all known to have been familiar to the physicist: the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, the 17th-century English poet John Donne, and the Hindu sacred text called the Bhagavad Gita. In this activity, students will take a close look at texts sung by the character or Oppenheimer, both to consider this “documentary” approach to libretto-writing and to understand how thoughts from such disparate sources add up to the character as Sellars and John Adams understand him. They will:
Listen to an excerpt from Doctor Atomic exemplifying the documentary libretto
Read several “conversations” and “soliloquys” from the opera, in which Oppenheimer uses quotations from world literature to express his views
Interpret the selections from poetry and spiritual literature to develop their own descriptions of Oppenheimer
Become acquainted with the use and style of language in Doctor Atomic as preparation for The Met: Live in HD transmission
Atomic Sounds: A Close Look at Elements of Contemporary Music
Much of the history of world culture has been driven by technology, and music is no exception. The piano was not invented until the early 18th century. The trumpet we know appeared a century later, when valves were added to a horn. The 20th century saw the invention of recorded, replayable music; electrical sound amplification; electric versions of older instruments, such as organs and guitars; and entirely new electronic instruments including synthesizers and samplers.
As a 21st-century composer, John Adams took advantage of all these technological possibilities in his opera about the transformative technology of atomic energy, creating sounds that can be both exciting and challenging for new listeners. In this activity, students will listen closely to excerpts from the opera, a kind of sampler of the sounds awaiting them in Doctor Atomic. They will:
Analyze selections from Doctor Atomic in terms of their sonic and emotional qualities
Interpret the relationship of text and music in the opera
Identify recurring patterns and qualities of sound
Express their own views on the relationships among concepts including music, sound and noise
Become acquainted with the sounds of Doctor Atomic in preparation for The Met: Live in HD transmission