An opera in two acts, sung in English
Music by John Adams
Libretto by Peter Sellars, adapted from original sources
ACT I: Los Alamos Laboratory, New Mexico. June 1945.
Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Project Commander General Leslie Groves are in charge of the Manhattan Project, the monumental, top-secret venture to develop the first atomic bomb. Convinced that an atomic weapon will be decisive in winning World War II, and desperate to create this monstrous new weapon before Germany can beat them to it, the United States has spent years pouring money, manpower, natural resources, and scientific and industrial expertise into the project—including at the remote Los Alamos Laboratory in the New Mexico desert. But recent events have some scientists questioning the wisdom of continuing their work. Germany surrendered to the Allied forces in May, and a number of scientists and politicians have suggested that Japan can be induced to surrender even without the United States dropping a nuclear bomb. Some scientists are also worried about the moral and social implications of the bomb, which promises a kind of instantaneous destruction previously unimaginable in the history of humankind. Two young physicists, Edward Teller and Robert Wilson, circulate a petition asking President Truman not to deploy the weapon. Oppenheimer, however, tells Teller and Wilson to stop undermining the project: He has just returned from Washington, and he knows that Truman has already decided to bomb Japan.
The Oppenheimers’ house in Los Alamos.
The physicists at Los Alamos are not the only ones concerned about what this bomb—and its impending test—might mean for the future. At home, Oppenheimer speaks with his wife, Kitty, about her fears. Through the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, they speak of fear and war, but they also speak about their love for each other. When Oppenheimer leaves, Kitty thinks about the contradictions that are now part of her life: war and peace, destruction and love.
The Trinity test site. July 15, 1945.
It is the night before the first atomic bomb test, and a massive, unexpected electrical storm is lashing the test site. The bomb, partially armed and hoisted on a high tower, is in danger of being struck by lightning. General Groves, the military commander overseeing the bomb test, is desperate for the detonation to happen on schedule, but he faces pushback from the scientists around him. Frank Hubbard, the chief meteorologist at the site, warns that attempting the test during a thunderstorm is extremely dangerous. Captain Nolan, of the Army Medical Corps, tries to impress upon Groves the toxic properties of radioactive fallout, which are only just beginning to be understood. As panic starts to take hold, the general dismisses all staff in order to confer with Oppenheimer alone.
Rather than focusing on the science of the upcoming test, though, Oppenheimer and Groves share a friendly moment, and Oppenheimer listens as Groves describes his current diet. Finally, Groves leaves to get some sleep. Left alone, Oppenheimer thinks about the terrifying weapon he has helped create and wonders what the atomic bomb will mean for humanity: Will it lead to peace? Or will it lead to utter destruction?
ACT II: The Oppenheimers’ house.
Two hundred miles from the test site, Kitty and Pasqualita watch the night sky for signs of the explosion. Like her husband, Kitty wonders if this bomb will bring peace or devastation to humanity. Rain begins to fall. Katherine, the Oppenheimers’ baby, wakes up and begins to cry. Pasqualita comforts her, singing a Tewa lullaby about the “cloud flower” that blossoms in the North.
The test site. Midnight.
The test area has been prepared for the explosion. Robert Wilson and Frank Hubbard are at the bomb tower taking last-minute measurements, but both are extremely worried about working on the bomb in the middle of an electrical storm. At the observation bunker, the scientists discuss the possibility that the detonation might set off an uncontrolled chain reaction ending in the destruction of the earth. Oppenheimer assures them that such a result is not possible. With the rain still coming down, Groves decides to take a chance on the storm’s passing, and Oppenheimer orders everybody to prepare for the test shot at 5:30AM. Now there is nothing for Groves and Oppenheimer to do but wait, and each is absorbed by his own terrified thoughts. Groves is plagued by fears of sabotage. Oppenheimer again wonders what the bomb will mean for the future.
The physicists, meanwhile, have been making bets on how powerful the bomb’s explosion will be. Oppenheimer surprises everyone by guessing that the explosion will be much smaller than predicted. Yet Oppenheimer is far from calm: As he waits for the explosion, terrifying lines from the Bhagavad Gita run through his mind.
The hour of the detonation approaches. At “zero minus ten minutes” (ten minutes before the blast), a warning rocket is fired and a siren sounds. The storm breaks, and the sky suddenly clears. A second warning rocket goes off. A third rocket, at “zero minus sixty seconds,” signals the final countdown. To protect themselves from the explosion, the scientists and army personnel lie face down in a series of shallow ditches; the ground looks like it is strewn with dead bodies. There is no movement or whisper of activity, only the rhythmic countdown over the loudspeaker. At “zero minus 45 seconds,” an engineer flips the switch for the automatic timer. The triggering circuits begin to fire. “Zero minus one.” There is an eerie silence.
Poetry and historical documents assembled by Peter Sellars
“I don’t write,” Peter Sellars told a documentary filmmaker shortly before the premiere of Doctor Atomic. “What I did here was assemble.” Drawing on historical documents (including a selection of papers that had only recently been declassified) relating to the development of the atomic bomb, memoirs and other statements by Manhattan Project scientists, and works of literature associated with the characters’ real-life counterparts, Sellars crafted a complex and evocative libretto for Doctor Atomic.
Some of these sources have an obvious historical connection to the events of the opera. For instance, the work’s opening lines (“We believed that matter can be neither created nor destroyed …”) are taken from a governmental report titled “Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945.” Similarly, much of Edward Teller’s dialogue is drawn from the scientist’s memoirs. Other sources, however, represent an eclectic array of poetic traditions; Sellars selected these sources because of their historical or personal connections to the opera’s characters. The most notable examples include:
Charles Baudelaire: A French poet of the mid-19th century, Baudelaire is best known for a volume of poems called The Flowers of Evil and for Paris Spleen, the volume of prose poems from which many of Oppenheimer’s lyrics are drawn. Baudelaire was known for writing eloquently and fearlessly about such topics as beauty, sexuality, drug use, sensation, despair, and death. On the night before the Trinity test, Oppenheimer had a book of Baudelaire’s poetry in his pocket. In Doctor Atomic, Peter Sellars weaves Baudelaire’s poetry into Oppenheimer’s conversations with Kitty, when the married couple discusses both their love for one another and their trepidation about the future the bomb might usher in.
John Donne: Donne was one of the metaphysical poets of late 16th- and early 17th-century England, who wrote about religious and philosophical matters from a deeply personal perspective. One of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”’ refers to a “three-person’d God”—the Christian notion of god as a “trinity” consisting of a father in heaven, the son Jesus Christ, and the holy spirit. Years after the first atomic bomb test, Oppenheimer would recall that he named the atomic test site “Trinity” after this poem. In the opera, Oppenheimer recites Donne’s sonnet as he waits for the bomb’s detonation, and the poem’s invocation to “break, blow, and burn” the speaker to cleanse him of his sin can be understood both as Oppenheimer’s wish to be absolved from his role in creating the bomb and as a reference to the terrifying power of the bomb to break, blow, and burn whatever it hits.
The Bhagavad Gita: The Bhagavad Gita, the title of which means “Song of God,” is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the Mahabharata. Commonly referred to as the Gita, this text explores the moral dilemmas of violence and war as the mortal hero Arjuna seeks counsel from Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, on how to achieve moksha, or release from the infinite cycle of death and rebirth. Sometime after the Trinity test, Oppenheimer recalled that a line from the Bhagavad Gita had come to mind at the precise moment of the explosion: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” In Sellars’s libretto, Oppenheimer and the gathered scientists recite one of the Gita’s descriptions of Vishnu, the god of destruction, as they contemplate the explosion of the bomb: “At the sight of this, your shape stupendous, full of mouths and eyes … terrible with fangs … with your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—all my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.”
Muriel Rukeyser: Both Kitty Oppenheimer and the American poet Muriel Rukeyser hailed from New York and were fiercely liberal. They were also about the same age, and it was these shared biographical details that led Peter Sellars to select Rukeyser’s poetry for Kitty’s operatic texts. Act II opens with a setting of Rukeyser’s poem “Easter Eve, 1945,” which was written as a response to the darkest days of World War II. Kitty sings this poem as she waits with her housekeeper and sleeping children in their home, far from the Trinity test site.
Tewa Poetry: The traditional Tewa poem recited by Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers’ nanny, is a recurring motif in the second act of the opera. Speaking of a “cloud flower” that blossoms in the North, the poem functions equally well as an evocative lullaby for the Oppenheimers’ baby and as a description of the terrifying mushroom cloud that will bloom over the bomb’s detonation site.