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John Adams and 'Dr. Atomic'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

The composer John Adams has written operas about communism and capitalism--"Nixon in China"--and terrorism--"The Death of Klinghoffer." His new opera continues that trend of addressing big, contemporary subjects. It's about the first test of a nuclear weapon at Los Alamos in 1945. It's now on stage at the San Francisco Opera. The story is based on Richard Rhodes' book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," and John Adams admits that the title of the opera, "Doctor Atomic," has the ring of a 1950s B-movie.

Mr. JOHN ADAMS (Composer): You know, I read comic books and I watched science-fiction movies, and a lot of those movies would start with some test in the Nevada desert followed by some strange, unnatural event; maybe a monster would appear or animals would start dying or something.

(Soundbite of "Doctor Atomic")

SIEGEL: What would we be seeing when we're hearing this?

Mr. ADAMS: This is the opening. It's a composition that I made entirely with power tools, and I wanted to give the feeling that we were sort of inside an electron accelerator.

(Soundbite of "Doctor Atomic")

Mr. ADAMS: The pounding timpani, which was inspired by science-fiction music, that's when the lights come up and we see the Los Alamos Lab and we see all the technicians and the military police and the scientists. And they're all, you know, frantically working in the lab trying to get ready for the bomb test. It is definitely, genuinely a sense of people working with the unknown. I mean, there's a moment right before the last scene where the scientists are sitting around talking about whether, indeed, this test might possibly ignite the entire Earth's atmosphere.

SIEGEL: Which was a theory that had been advanced at one time.

Mr. ADAMS: Teller had been asked by Oppenheimer to do some calculations, some number-crunching, and it was pretty quickly proven that that wouldn't be the case. But just the fact that that was on the table as a remote possibility, I think, is very expressive of the vast unknown into which these physicists were walking.

SIEGEL: The part of the physicist Edward Teller is sung by a bass in "Doctor Atomic." Robert Oppenheimer is a lyric baritone and the idealistic physicist Robert Wilson, who had wanted to have a demonstration explosion, is a tenor. Does their virtue rise with their voices as you see this?

Mr. ADAMS: Not necessarily. I think that probably the biggest surprise to people that will come to this opera will be that our Teller is not the archetypical Teller that a lot of people have come to expect, you know, the older man who had betrayed his former boss and who was, as they say, the father of the H-bomb. Teller, when he was in Los Alamos, was still a young and handsome physicist. He was difficult. He didn't like to work with groups, but Oppenheimer was very fond of him.

SIEGEL: This is an opera that builds toward a great explosion and a great--in effect, a great fireball, and fire seems to figure quite a bit in there.

Mr. ADAMS: Indeed, it does. And one of the extraordinary things that my collaborator Peter Sellers did in compiling a libretto was to use poetry that Oppenheimer loved, including these terrifying images of fire and destruction of the world from the "Bhagavad Gita." It was a wonderful opportunity to use poetry and use the elevated tone of poetry. For example, the John Donne sonnet "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God."

(Soundbite of "Doctor Atomic")

SIEGEL: Then there are parts of the libretto that are literally prosaic. They are--they're taken from documented dialogue, if not, I guess, some government documents as well.

Mr. ADAMS: Some actually declassified government documents. Peter Sellers is fond of saying `This is the first time that a composer has set a declassified government document.'

SIEGEL: (Laughs) And you had to write to that. Or how does that work? Did you have the mu--I hate to ask you the perennial question but, you know did you...

Mr. ADAMS: Music or words?

SIEGEL: Yes, yes, exactly.

Mr. ADAMS Yeah.

SIEGEL: What do you do when you think, `Well, there's going to be a declassified memorandum about what happened in Los Alamos now'?

Mr. ADAMS: That's right. Well, as the Italians say, it is always prima la parola; I need the words first. The words are what generate the musical images, and I would say that the wonderful thing about writing for the stage is that it stretches me as a composer. You know, I think the big challenge for me was, of course, the end. I knew I couldn't compete with George Lucas when it came to putting an explosion of that nature on the stage. In the end, I called Richard Rhodes and I asked him, `You know, would it have been possible to see this bomb from 200 miles away from Los Alamos where Kitty Oppenheimer was?' And I got the message back that they would have known that dawn was coming from the wrong direction. So in the end, at the very last moment, we suddenly retreat 200 miles and you experience the bomb from a great distance. But it's still very, very upsetting and profoundly disturbing in the theater.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk a little bit more what you said about competing with George Lucas. When Verdi staged "Aida," to say something was operatic would have been taking advantage of the most spectacular, big medium...

Mr. ADAMS: Sure.

SIEGEL: ...full of live elephants that you could possibly have. Today, opera is not the big spectacular extravanganza medium.

Mr. ADAMS: Well, I think opera is in danger of marginalizing itself as a really important and decisive element on the cultural radar screen. And I think if opera is actually going to be a part of our lives and if operas are going to express what it means to be alive right now as an American in 2005 with the kind of, you know, anxieties and consciousness that we carry around with us, I think it has to deal with contemporary topics. I think that the atomic bomb, in particular, is an intensely important theme because the moment that bomb went off we switched. The human species changed from being a part of all the other species who are sort of living on this planet to the medium or the instrument through which the Earth potentially could be destroyed.

SIEGEL: I guess the greatest understatement in the libretto is the last line, end of the opera, and end of much else as well.

Mr. ADAMS: Yes.

SIEGEL: John Adams, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: John Adams spoke to us from Berkeley, California, where he lives. His opera is "Doctor Atomic."

(Soundbite of "Doctor Atomic")

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.