• Doctor Atomic Educator Guide

What to Expect from Dr. Atomic

Opera has always dealt with larger-than-life emotions and scenarios. But in recent decades, composers have used the power of opera to investigate society and ethical responsibility on a grander scale: war, peace, politics, the very survival of humanity and our planet.

With one of the first American operas of the 21st century, composer John Adams took up just such an investigation. At the center of his Doctor Atomic is what may be the single most momentous event of the past 100 years: the invention and detonation of the first atomic bomb. In a program known as the Manhattan Project, scientists and soldiers, secretly stationed in Los Alamos, New Mexico, for the duration of the Second World War, sought not only to make a weapon of unprecedented destructiveness, but to plumb the fundamental relationship between matter and energy. Set in Los Alamos in the days and hours leading up to the test of the bomb, Doctor Atomic addresses not only the daily life of the members of the Manhattan Project and the ethical dilemmas they faced, but—quite literally—the nature of all things.

  • Classroom Activities

    Two full-length activities, designed to support your ongoing curriculum.
  • Musical Highlights

    Three "Musical Highlights" designed to focus briefly on bits of music from Dr. Atomic to cultivate familiarity with the work.
  • Performance Activities

    Performance Activities for students to enjoy during the Metropolitan Opera HD transmission.
  • Post-Show Discussion

     A post-transmission activity, integrating the Live in HD experience into students' wider views of the performing arts.

Dr. Atomic at the Met

Adams’s work receives its Met premiere this fall in a production by filmmaker Penny Woolcock. While directing a live opera for the first time, she is no stranger to this particular composer’s music and esthetics, having directed the film version of Adams’s earlier opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Working with artists and designers who are at the forefront of theatrical innovation, Woolcock’s vision of Doctor Atomic addresses its challenging themes in a visually inventive language, adding another layer to the music and the text.

An opera about the creation of the atomic bomb may sound like a daring or even crazy idea at first, but Adams and his collaborator, Peter Sellars, prove that no subject could be more appropriately grand and no other medium more suitable to address all the questions, emotions, and human experiences involved. Instead of writing a traditional libretto, Sellars created a collage out of historical documents, poetry, and spiritual texts associated with the real-life characters, organizing them into a loose narrative of the final hours before the first atomic test. The text is set to music that is contemporary, beautiful, sensuous, and more easily accessible than the works of most 21st-century composers. At the same time, it is influenced by a century of forms and styles unknown to Puccini, Verdi, or Wagner. The score of Doctor Atomic inspires and demands a quality of listening unlike any known to opera-goers of Mozart’s or even Richard Strauss’s day.

The synopsis can be found here.

Further topics for discussion can be found here.

An interview with the composer John Adams can be found here.

Credits