Doctor Atomic

The Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, November 15.

The Manhattan Project—specifically the final days at Los Alamos before the testing of the atomic bomb—makes for an odd subject for opera. The drama is there, but it’s an internal, bookish sort of drama with little in the way of action. In the first act, the characters argue about petitions and bad weather. In the second act, they just wait for the explosion.

Composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars, adapting a number of sources, attempt to get at the enormous ethical quandaries that Robert Oppenheimer and his team faced, but the music is poorly served by the tag-team philosophizing. Ultimately, opera is not an intellectual medium but an emotional one. When Adams tries to challenge that, the music often feels empty and scattered and the expressed ideas feel superficial. But when he embraces the emotion—setting aside the historical details and physics jargon and ethical debates in favor of meditating on raw fears about mortality and culpability—Doctor Atomic finally discovers its real power.