Opera, that most extreme of the staged arts, has always made a routine of spectacularly violent endings—inventive homicides and suicides (poisoned bouquets, seppuku), grandiose self-immolations, a post-nuptial psychotic spree, even, as in Dialogues of the Carmelites, the occasional mass-guillotining. But it’s probably fair to say that, in terms of sheer destructive power, no finale could ever be as grand as the one that brings John Adams and Peter Sellars’s Doctor Atomic to its close: it ends with a nuclear detonation. In some, rather obvious ways, that climax comes as no surprise; in others—not least, the way in which this opera relates to the rest of Adams’s work—it’s very startling indeed.
It’s no surprise because the opera—which seeks to dramatize certain events leading up to the first successful test of an atom bomb, in July 1945, and to ponder the ethical and political questions inevitably raised by that event—premiered several years ago, in 2005, at the San Francisco Opera (which had commissioned an “American Faust” in 1999). In the intervening years, it has been the object of much enthusiastic comment by critics, by opera-lovers, and, because of Adams’s stature as a leading American composer of serious music and particularly of opera, by a wider circle of commentators than that which typically greets new classical music.
More recently and locally, it’s been hard not to hear about Doctor Atomic in great detail, about its earnest and high-minded engagement with its weighty subject, if you happen to live in New York City, where the Metropolitan Opera presented the opera in a brand-new staging this fall, and where, by my count, no fewer than a dozen events around town, intended to provide audiences with some extracurricular vehicles for mulling over the Manhattan Project and its cultural fallout, were presented around the time of the new production’s premiere in October. There were lectures at the Met (“Atomic Fallout: The World of the Bomb”), a number of symposia at the City University of New York (“Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project”), even a staging of a one-act play called Uranium + Peaches. To be sure, these events were designed to make the local premiere of a work that was no longer new into a significant event in the city’s cultural life; then again, it’s unlikely that the Met’s imminent new production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a melodic nineteenth-century meringue about a pretty village girl whose tendency to sleepwalk gets her into trouble, will generate new plays and academic symposia featuring Nobel Prize winners.
So a lot of people already know about this opera. But the real reason the ending of Doctor Atomic won’t come as a surprise to …