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Inside the Music

Oppenheimer at the Opera

Side-by-side images of composer John Adams and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Composer John Adams and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the focus of Adams' 2005 opera “Doctor Atomic.”

Although “cutting-edge” may not be the first term many people would associate with operas—in part because the most popular and frequently staged ones are at least a century old—innovations have always been part of the art form, and sometimes an opera gets to a particular story long before it comes to the center of pop culture.

Case in point: American composer John Adams, a leading figure in contemporary opera, brought the story of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer—the so-called “father of the atomic bomb”—to the San Francisco Opera stage in 2005 with his Doctor Atomic, 18 years before Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning movie Oppenheimer became one half of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon that earned nearly $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office.

On June 7 and 8 the Minnesota Orchestra is performing Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, a work that premiered in 2007 and distills the three-hour opera into a 25-minute instrumental work. How does the opera compare with the movie? Following are a few ways.

Scope of the Story: The movie Oppenheimer is broader in its narrative scale, spanning the years 1926 to 1963. It covers Oppenheimer’s rise in academia, leadership of the Manhattan Project (1942-1946) that created the first atomic bombs, arms control advocacy and clashes with U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss. By contrast, Doctor Atomic takes place only in the summer of 1945, in the days leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb—ending with scientists viewing the test and a foreshadowing of the bombs’ use through the voice of a Japanese woman pleading for help.

Cast of Characters: Doctor Atomic’s cast comprises eight primary characters, four of whom are also portrayed in Oppenheimer: J. Robert Oppenheimer (played in the movie by Cillian Murphy); his wife Kitty Oppenhemier (Emily Blunt); the Manhattan Project’s director, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon); and Edward Teller (Bennie Safdie), the physicist who expanded the scope of nuclear weapons with the creation of the hydrogen bomb. In a crucial difference, Oppenheimer’s foil Lewis Strauss does not appear in Doctor Atomic.

Collaboration: Previous collaboration is a shared theme of both the movie and opera. Peter Sellars, who wrote the libretto for Doctor Atomic, has been a key figure in five of Adams’ six operas, while the Swedish film composer Ludwig Göransson previously scored Nolan’s 2020 film Tenet.

Source Material: Sellars used a variety of sources for his libretto, including declassified government documents; communications among the scientists, government officials and military personnel involved in the Manhattan Project; poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser and John Donne; quotes from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita; and a song from the Indigenous Tewa tribe. Nolan’s screenplay for Oppenhemier is based on one main source: the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Standout Scenes: Music is, of course, central to any opera, but the musical score of Oppenheimer is also crucial to the impact of many scenes in the movie. Göransson and Adams both wrote music that brings dimension to Oppenheimer’s inner thoughts and the science of quantum mechanics and nuclear reactions, as well as the intense drama of the countdown to the initial weapon test. A standout scene from the movie is the “Can You Hear the Music” sequence, for which Nolan requested music emulating Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The director took the unusual step of spurring inspiration by going with Göransson to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of the Stravinsky work. Doctor Atomic’s best-known scene is the conclusion of Act I, as Oppenheimer, alone onstage with the bomb prototype, sings an aria setting text from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV”—a nod to the physicist’s love of poetry. (In the symphony version, a trumpet takes on the singer’s role.)

Acclaim: Oppenheimer’s score drew universal critical acclaim, winning many honors including a Grammy and an Academy Award for best film score. Doctor Atomic was hailed in 2005 by The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini as “the musical event of the year in America” and also won a Grammy—the 2012 Best Opera Recording award for the Metropolitan Opera’s recording.

Other Operas and Pop Culture

Doctor Atomic isn’t the first opera to predate a pop culture phenomenon. Here in the Twin Cities in 2003, Minnesota Opera gave the North American premiere of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. In 2017 Atwood’s book became the acclaimed Hulu streaming TV series of the same name. In another example, Jonathan Larson’s Broadway musical Rent, which premiered in 1996, is based loosely on the beloved 1896 opera La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini.

Going in the other direction, some contemporary operas address topics that had been covered in modern films. Mason Bates’ opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs premiered in 2017, two years after the Aaron Sorkin-penned film Steve Jobs came out, while Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain premiered in 2014, nine years after the Ang Lee film version hit theaters. In addition, Kevin Puts’ 2022 opera The Hours is based on the 2002 film and Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel of the same title. Furthermore, the line between film and opera vanishes entirely thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s streaming of its Live in HD productions shown in movie theaters.

Coming to Orchestra Hall

The art form of opera thrives today thanks in part to composers like Adams and Puts as well as many opera companies known for innovative stagings, adaptations and commissions. Orchestras often get in on the act as well—including the Minnesota Orchestra, which next September will perform a symphony drawn from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel, and in May 2025 will present a concert version of Puccini’s Turandot, both with Music Director Thomas Søndergård conducting. Join us for these and other upcoming nods to great music transplanted from the opera house to Orchestra Hall.

But first, come to Orchestra Hall on June 7-8 for the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance of the Doctor Atomic Symphony, along with Adolphus Hailstork’s Symphony No. 1 and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 featuring soloist Yefim Bronfman—purchase tickets here.