Manhattan project

John Adams illuminates a modern American epic in Doctor Atomic.

Photograph: Margaretta Michell

In his new memoir, Hallelujah Junction, John Adams describes a downside of being a successful composer with several major operas under his belt. “Walking the dog in my neighborhood of Berkeley, people would slow their Volvos, roll down the window and bark out a comment,” he writes. Characters, plot points, you name it, are suddenly open to neighborly scrutiny, thanks to the composer’s renown and, most likely, the notoriety of his topics.

Opinions are usually most pointed when it comes to what have been called Adams’s “CNN operas”—those that touch on modern historical events and characters, whether it’s Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Chairman Mao (1987’s Nixon in China), the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists (The Death of Klinghoffer, from 1991) or the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb (Doctor Atomic, which premiered in San Francisco in 2005 and enjoys a new production at the Metropolitan Opera starting Monday 13). The last work not only shows how far the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer has traveled beyond his formative roots in 1970s minimalism, but also how he has brought modern opera to the masses by embracing topicality.

“Contemporary subjects are very important in that they do command people’s attention,” says Adams, speaking by phone from his California home. “Certainly the subjects of my operas go to the psychic core of our American life, whether it’s politics or terrorism or the atomic bomb. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it’s the only show in town. My most recent opera, A Flowering Tree, is based on a very old folk tale and the most modern piece of technology in it is an elephant.”

A Flowering Tree, just out on CD from Nonesuch and coming to the Mostly Mozart Festival next August as part of an Adams residency, is something of a left turn for the 61-year-old composer. Doctor Atomic, in contrast, finds mythical potential in modern icons and events. Set in the New Mexican desert during the two-week period in July 1945 when the first atomic bomb was tested, it was conceived as a kind of “American Faust.” The story of Oppenheimer’s decision to accept the U.S. Army’s invitation to lead the Manhattan Project, and his eventual fall from political grace and public humiliation, implied a latter-day “pact with the devil” to Adams.

Director Peter Sellars, a longtime collaborator, assembled the opera’s libretto, drawing upon declassified government documents as well as poetry by Baudelaire, Donne and others. While early reviews of Doctor Atomic called it everything from an unqualified masterpiece to an unalloyed bomb, the opera has acquired a particular fan base among members of the scientific community; several physicists, historians and Manhattan Project veterans are speaking at ancillary events surrounding the New York production.

At the helm of the Met’s new staging will be Penny Woolcock, a British writer and director who made a film adaptation of The Death of Klinghoffer in 2003. This will be her first live opera production. “What’s so impressive ever since she took over the project, which has been about two years now, is that she’s gone as deep into the Los Alamos story as any of us and she has her own take on it,” says Adams, who has yet to see the new version in person.

The composer has made some minor changes to the score since its premiere, but in general has reached a stage in his career where he avoids second-guessing. Not only is Adams the most-performed living composer among American orchestras, but some of his recordings have sold more than 50,000 copies—rare for a classical release. His current success makes the chapters in his memoir about his early career struggles (and dabbling in 1960s drug culture) all the more revealing.

“I suppose, in a sense, I’m creating my own mythology,” he says. “Maybe I’m not out there with Stockhausen or Wagner in terms of creating a mystique.” He pauses, then adds, “I certainly suspect 30 or 50 years from now there will be a revisionist biography.”

Doctor Atomic opens at the Metropolitan Opera Mon 13.