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Program cover shows two hands holding a small globe, which is filled by a red atomic mushroom cloud
"Doctor Atomic" program cover. Music Division.

“Dr. Atomic,” The Oppenheimer Opera

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This is a guest post by Kate Rivers, a specialist in the Music Division. It also appears in the January-February issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

The setting: the San Francisco Opera and the 2005 sneak preview of “Doctor Atomic,” a new opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams based on the compelling saga of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the other scientists who engineered the world-altering test of the first atomic bomb.

In the audience sat Marvin L. Cohen, president of the American Physical Society, amateur musician and real-life physicist from the University of California, Berkeley — the school that had been Oppenheimer’s academic home.

The opera’s first words drew Cohen’s professional attention:

Matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only altered in form.

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only altered in form.

Section of a handwritten music score, with annotations.
 Sheet music from “Doctor Atomic.” Music Division. Copyright by Hendon Music Inc., a Boosey & Hawkes Company. Used with permission.

Celebrated director and Adams collaborator Peter Sellars had devised the libretto, drawing directly from once-secret government documents, official government publications and firsthand accounts of scientists working to pull off the Trinity test. (Oppenheimer’s papers, which document much of this history, are also preserved at the Library.)

Cohen, however, believed those first words presented a problem: The text did not reflect scientists’ knowledge in 1945. Oppenheimer would have known better.

The solution to that problem is documented in the archival collection of Adams’ music manuscripts and papers, acquired by the Library this year even as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film “Oppenheimer” brought renewed buzz to the subject.

The material related to “Doctor Atomic” includes costume designs, concert programs depicting the famous blast and oversized music manuscript pages, rich with Adams’ pencil handwriting.

To correct the error noticed by Cohen, Adams and Sellars adjusted the music and text to convey a scientific perspective that would have been right in Oppie’s view:

We believed that “matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.”

We believed that “energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.”

But now we know that energy may become matter, and now we know that matter may become energy, and thus be altered in form.

It goes to show that words, and words in music, matter.

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  1. The Opera does not reflect reality; It reflects “Wishful Thinking” by an obvious “Liberal” who is making an concerted, aesthetic commentary on the “Morality or Ethicality” of the creation of the Atomic Bomb and its usage upon mankind?

    It is dreary because reading the text is tantamount to reading a “Treatise” of the dangers of humanity by humanity itself? We’re already read such word and witnessed such Gospels.

    Ultimately, its purpose? It is an exercise in restrained ego by a Caucasian Composer who isn’t in the same league as Bach or Mozart.

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