'You'd think," says the director Penny Woolcock, "that if any opera would end with a bang, it would be this one." Yes, you would. John Adams's Doctor Atomic, which has its UK premiere at English National Opera tonight, is about the most portentous big bang of all: the test of the atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945. The title character is J Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the physicist in charge of 12 then and future Nobel-ists and many others who, after more than two years in the hothouse of Los Alamos, discovered that compressing plutonium would release a destructive force thousands of times greater than any created by man. Yet, as Woolcock says, the composer has provided no blast, and she will not be showing a film of a mushroom cloud. The ending of the opera, in murmurs and disquiet, embodies its theme: the anxiety in which the bomb was born, and which has characterised the nuclear age.
The opera, first staged in 2005, was originally directed by Peter Sellars, Adams's collaborator on Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. But when it was scheduled for the Metropolitan Opera in New York last autumn, objections to Sellars's bleak, abstract production, evoking the emptiness of the desert, led to the engagement of Woolcock, a film-maker who had never directed a stage work but had made an acclaimed movie of The Death of Klinghoffer. She describes her set (by Julian Crouch) as "more intricate", conveying more of the "spectacular beauty" of the landscape. There are more visual references to the Tewa Indians of New Mexico, and films are used for both atmosphere and information. We see projections of the scientists' ID cards and a scene from one of their favourite movies. Reviews were favourable, with critics calling the score "ravishing", praising its "microscopic clarity" and "panoramic sweep".
Unlike Adams's previous operas, Doctor Atomic does not have a librettist. Its text is, for the most part, the words of the original participants, assembled by Sellars. Some of the lyrical passages use poetry by Muriel Rukeyser ("This earth-long day/ Between blood and resurrection"); in others, the music is set to words by Donne or Baudelaire or from the Bhagavad-Gita, all of which were favourites of Oppenheimer's.
Nor was poetry Oppenheimer's only cultural interest. Like his wealthy Jewish parents, he collected art with great seriousness, inviting guests to see his Van Gogh only when the sun struck it at the right angle, and he was fluent in several ancient and modern languages. When another physicist protested that a book Oppenheimer recommended was in Dutch, he replied, "But it's easy, Dutch." As well as being a brilliant physicist and an intimidatingly cultured man, Oppenheimer was a great teacher and a complex personality – charming, humorous, kind, attractive, idealistic to the point of recklessness, but also haughty, defensive and capable of freezing intruders with what was known as his "blue glare". While his socialistic beliefs and friendships with Communists were hardly unusual, for several years before Oppenheimer undertook what was code-named the Manhattan Project, he was under FBI surveillance. In 1954, during the McCarthy persecutions, Oppenheimer, then on the board of the Atomic Energy Commission, was summoned to a hearing to determine whether he was a security risk. Unlike most other victims of the witch-hunt, he did not suffer financially or professionally, but he was publicly humiliated and his security clearance was withdrawn.
Oppenheimer will be sung by Gerald Finley, who has played the part since the first production. For nearly the entire opera, most of which takes place in the hours before the blast, he is onstage, excited but apprehensive at what he has done. He is distracted by his alcoholic wife, Kitty, and by some of the physicists, who want him to join them in petitioning for the bomb not to be dropped on Japan. (The Manhattan Project was conceived in fear that Nazi Germany was developing a bomb of its own. When this proved untrue, and the war in Europe was won, its use against Japanese civilians was thought unconscionable. The controversy has never died, with the other side, including some Japanese, arguing that, by hastening the end of war in the Pacific, the bomb saved up to a million lives.) For all the genius and money involved, though, nothing can be done about the weather: an electrical storm threatens the test.
Though Adams had felt, after Nixon in China and Klinghoffer, that he did not want to subject himself again to the struggle involved in creating an opera, he changed his mind when given the suggestion for this one. The "existential terror" of the bomb, he said then, "dominated the psychic activity of my childhood". The title suggests the science fiction of the Fifties as well as Doctor Faustus. "This isn't the Faust story; this was a race to save civilisation," says Adams. "But Oppenheimer was in an ivory tower and given immense power, and all power has the potential to corrupt." The opera shows the scientist awakening to his terrible responsibility, with the apprehension of his wife and his own, agonised "Batter my heart, three-person'd God". The text is a Donne sonnet and Oppenheimer called the test Trinity after it. The poem has been set by Benjamin Britten in The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. "I hadn't known the Britten setting, and I would not have wanted to hear it," says Adams. When Oppenheimer quotes Baudelaire, there is a quick reference to "the sensibility of French music", and there are nods to Wagner and Debussy, but a more important influence is Adams's early love, Duke Ellington, with his "jabs" and "bullets" that power the long, propulsive sections of eagerness and dread. Though Adams at first wondered whether the opera had sufficient dramatic interest, he later decided that the "three hours of men arguing" contained "stepping stones to higher matters". He says now that "what the people here are waiting for is something that is going to change human life inexorably. That's a very dramatically potent situation, because people in it fall into the most dramatic part of themselves. A lot of opera people had difficulty with this opera because it didn't fit into a neat pattern, and because they didn't like the score's hallucinatory quality."
Doctor Atomic is bound to create debate. Woolcock's answer when asked whether the bomb should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is "no". Adams says, "I have been thinking about that since I took this up, and I can't say." What might Oppenheimer have thought of the opera? While he felt oppressed at times by his responsibility for the bomb, he said he never regretted it, and he disowned Heinar Kipphardt's 1964 play, In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer, which portrayed him as burdened with guilt. But he might not have wanted to sit through enough of Doctor Atomic to make up his mind. For the polymath had one cultural blind spot. Once a year, feeling he ought to make the effort, he would go to the opera with a friend. And every time, the friend said, "He'd leave after the first act."
'Doctor Atomic' premieres tonight at English National Opera and continues to 20 March ( www.eno.org )
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