Do the Words Matter?


Baritone Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, onstage with “The Gadget” in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.

In a previous blog post, I discussed Oppenheimer’s Act I aria in John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic. The entirety of the aria’s text is John Donne’s Holy Sonnet no. 14, “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”

As you know, an opera aria is a moment in the narrative that takes place out of time: the drama advances in the recitatives, but the aria is the place for a character to step out of the action, to reflect upon it, to collect his thoughts, and to offer commentary on it. In the aria “Batter my heart,” Oppenheimer wrestles with one of the greatest moral dilemmas of our age: what it means to harness science — knowledge — in the service of war. He knows that the atomic bomb is a necessary tool for winning the war, but he knows, too, that it will ultimately result in the destruction of untold thousands of lives.

John Adams has said of his opera:

The central figure in bringing the bomb to existence, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, had some of the characteristics of the Faust character, particularly Goethe’s version of him. Oppenheimer was gifted with one of the quickest intellects known to science . . .  He was a man of exceptional culture, a deep reader of poetry, particularly of the English metaphysical poets, of Charles Baudelaire, and of the Bhagavad Gita, which he read in Sanskrit. . . . Indeed, there were enough looming parallels between Faust and Oppenheimer to suggest the latter as a subject for an American Faust.

Certainly, there was the paradox of how this hugely endowed and well-born man, wealthy, charismatic, cultured, an intellectual nonpareil, would be the person who would shepherd the creation of the world’s first nuclear bomb. But the more I read about Oppenheimer and the situa-tion facing the United States at the worst point during the war, the less I thought it reasonable to draw a parallel between Oppenheimer himself and Faust, at least on a personal level. . . . The presumed threat of a German atomic bomb was what prompted the Manhattan Project, and it is one of the supreme ironies of Nazi racism that a significant number of the great minds that were instrumental in winning the race were émigré Jews. The hundred or more brilliant young physicists, chemists, engineers, and mathematicians who assembled on a high mesa in Los Alamos, New Mexico, considered themselves not at all making a pact with the devil, but rather completely devoted to winning a war against tyranny, or as Robert Wilson, one of the youngest of them and a protégé of Oppenheimer, said, “going out to save civilization.”

Peter Sellars, who you know as a visionary opera director, is credited as the librettist for Doctor Atomic, but in fact he compiled the libretto from diaries, letters, memoirs, and declassified government documents. He filled in the remainder with poetry. Not only is Oppenheimer’s aria a musical setting of John Donne; earlier in Act I, Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, sing a love duet, in which her words are taken from a poem by the Oppenheimer’s contemporary Muriel Rukeyser, and his are by the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire:


Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
opening the body’s mouth stopping the words.


If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!
My soul floats upon perfumes
as the souls of other men
float upon music.

How do you think this method of writing an opera works? Is it effective? Is it piecemeal?

It can be argued that the momentous circumstances of the opera’s plot — the test of the first atomic bomb — warrant words that go beyond the ordinary utterances of everyday life, and that thus Peter Sellars’s pulling materials from many different published texts from disparate times and cultures elevates the libretto to its rightful drama.

On the other hand, one critic complained:

I’m sorry to have to say it, but [the libretto] made Doctor Atomic begin to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera. (And, yes, I get it: “Splitting the skull” is like splitting the atom! Stop cringing; it’s literary! No, sorry: It’s ludicrous.) . . .  Do words not matter in opera? . . . Because words are sung, do they transcend any bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness? 

You can read the whole libretto here.

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