Doctor Atomic - Monster Opera?
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The opera Doctor Atomic (2005) by John Adams and Peter Sellars deals with, in Adams’ words, ‘the great mythological tale of our time’, namely the events leading up to, and including, the first atomic bomb explosion in the history of mankind on the 16th of July, 1945, at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert. The opera seems to cross the border between mythology and history in a rather intriguing way. The not uncontroversial libretto by Peter Sellars is comprised of pre-existing material ranging from poetry by Charles Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, to extracts from the Bhagavad Gita, scientific literature, secret documents, and recollections of people somehow involved in the Trinity events involving conversations between the protagonists. Not only does the opera cross the boundary between accepted historical fact and the domain of fiction, it seemingly also transgresses the divide between high and low culture. Adams titled the opera Doctor Atomic because he wanted ‘something that had more of a populist ring to it’, and thought it ‘resonated with science fiction and the American middlebrow impression of scientific geniuses.’ In an interview taken by Thomas May in February 2005, Adams was asked ‘what was the first musical impulse [he] had for the opera’, and responded that he first thought about science fiction films of ‘the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and finally decided to work with the idea of using ‘Varèse and science-fiction music’ as a starting point. In the interview, he sketched a typical plot, featuring ‘a nuclear explosion in the desert [… which] would result in some disturbing phenomenon, something frightening and threatening.’ In this thesis, I will examine how Adams and Sellars described the mythological dimension of Doctor Atomic, and how this dimension is connected to nuclear arms criticism. I will discuss the type of science fiction film I think Doctor Atomic refers to, and will compare the 2007 performance of De Nederlandse Opera with a number of these films.