Wonders Are Many (2007)


Wonders Are Many (2007)

A documentary on the making of Dr. Atomic, a modern opera about the making of the atomic bomb.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
IMDb   8.1 /10
TheMovieDb    0.5 /10
Director Jon Else
Release Date2008-05-30
Runtime1h 32mins
Content RatingNot Rated (Not Rated)
CompanyActual Films, Independent Television Service (ITVS)
John Adams
John Adams
Self - Composer
Self - Librettist / Director
Self - Singer: Robert Oppenheimer
Thomas Glenn
Thomas Glenn
Self - Singer: Robert R. Wilson (understudy / replacement)
Kristine Jepson
Kristine Jepson
Self - Singer: Kitty Oppenheimer
James Maddalena
James Maddalena
Self - Singer: Jack Hubbard
Eric Owens
Eric Owens
Self - Narrator / Singer: General Leslie Groves
Tom Randle
Tom Randle
Self - Singer: Robert R. Wilson (rehearsals)
Donald Runnicles
Donald Runnicles
Self - Conductor

Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic is an opera by the contemporary American composer John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars. It premiered at the San Francisco Opera on October 1, 2005. The work focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the test of the first atomic bomb (the "Trinity" test) was being prepared. In 2007, a documentary was made about the creation of the opera, titled Wonders Are Many.

Composition history

The first act takes place about a month before the bomb is to be tested, and the second act is set in the early morning of July 16, 1945 (the day of the test). During the second act, time frequently slows down for the characters and then snaps back into reality. The opera ends in the final, prolonged moment before the bomb is detonated. Although the original commission for the opera suggested that U.S. physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," be fashioned as a 20th-century Doctor Faustus, Adams and Sellars deliberately attempted to avoid this characterization. Alice Goodman worked for two years with Adams on the project before leaving, objecting to the characterization of Edward Teller, as dictated by the original commission.

The work centers on key players in the Manhattan Project, especially Robert Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and also features Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert's wife. Sellars adapted the libretto from primary historical sources.

Doctor Atomic is similar in style to previous Adams operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, both of which explored the characters and personalities that were involved in historical incidents, rather than a re-enactment of the events themselves.


Much of the text from the opera was adapted from declassified U.S. government documents and communications among the scientists, government officials, and military personnel who were involved in the project. Other borrowed texts include poetry by Charles Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, and a traditional Tewa Indian song.

Opening chorus

Marvin Cohen, professor of physics at UC Berkeley and president of the American Physical Society at the time, criticized some parts of the libretto for not being strictly scientifically correct, in particular the original opening lines which were excerpted from the 1945 Smyth Report:

Following Cohen's criticism, Adams rewrote the opening chorus, so that it now reads:

We believed that "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form." We believed that "Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form." But now we know that energy may become matter, and now we know that matter may become energy and thus be altered in form.

Conclusion of act 1

The aria, sung by Oppenheimer, uses text from Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; For you As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe Shine, and seek to mend; Batter my heart, three person’d God; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow burn and make me new. I, like an usurpt town, to another due, Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end, Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue, Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy, Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The act 2, scene iii chorus

This was borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita (translated into English by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood) and reads:

At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous, Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies, Terrible with fangs, O master, All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am. When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent, Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow, With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring— All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.

Act 2 traditional Tewa song

This act is peppered with a repeated refrain from Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers' Tewa Indian housemaid. The text comes from a traditional Tewa song, and subsequent reiterations repeat the text with the direction changed to west, east, and south:

In the north the cloud-flower blossoms And now the lightning flashes And now the thunder clashes And now the rain comes down! A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.

Performance history

Subsequent productions

In June 2007 this production made its European première at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. It then opened in December 2007 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, again directed by Sellars, with Finley and Owens reprising their roles. Adams and Sellars made "some significant changes" to the opera and production in response to feedback from the San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Chicago productions.

A new production of the opera, directed by the film director Penny Woolcock and conducted by Alan Gilbert, was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in October 2008 and was part of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series on November 8, 2008. The assistant conductor for this production was also Donato Cabrera. The HD video of the production was later televised nationally on PBS as well, in the Great Performances at the Met series in December 2008. On January 17, 2009, the Met production of the opera was heard on NPR as part of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Penny Woolcock's production was restaged by the English National Opera in London, February 25 to March 20, 2009 with Gerald Finley reprising his portrayal of the lead. The 2008 Met production was streamed online on June 23 and December 8, 2020.


RoleVoice typePremiere cast, October 1, 2005
(Conductor: Donald Runnicles)
J. Robert OppenheimerbaritoneGerald Finley
Kitty Oppenheimermezzo-soprano or sopranoKristine Jepson
Gen Leslie GrovesbassEric Owens
Edward Tellerdramatic baritoneRichard Paul Fink
Robert R. WilsontenorThomas Glenn
Frank HubbardbaritoneJames Maddalena
Captain James NolantenorJay Hunter Morris
Pasqualitamezzo-soprano or contraltoBeth Clayton

Adams had written the role of Kitty Oppenheimer for the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. However, she was unable to commit to the project due to her health (she died soon after the work premiered). The work was sung in the world premiere by mezzo Kristine Jepson. For the second major production, at De Nederlandse Opera, Adams reworked the role for a soprano, Jessica Rivera. For the Metropolitan Opera Premiere, the role was again sung by a mezzo, Sasha Cooke.

Doctor Atomic Symphony

In 2007, Adams adapted the opera into the Doctor Atomic Symphony. Music was taken from the overture, various interludes and orchestral settings were made of arias like Oppenheimer's signature "Batter My Heart." The work was first premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the composer on August 21, 2007, at a BBC Proms concert. The work was later performed at Carnegie Hall in Spring 2008. Originally composed in four movements and lasting 45 minutes, the symphony was revised by Adams to just three movements (played without a break) and 25 minutes' length. This version was recorded in 2008 by the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson and released by Nonesuch Records on July 20, 2009.


  • 2008: DVD widescreen DTS sound; or Blu-ray widescreen Dolby True HD sound with Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer; conductor: Lawrence Renes; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus; Studio: Opus Arte
  • 2012: Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording-winning audio recording with Gilbert, Finley, Cooke, Fink, Glenn, Metropolitan Opera, 2008 Sony
  • 2018: Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording-Nominated Official audio recording with Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock, Jennifer Johnston, Brindley Sherratt, Andrew Staples, Marcus Farnsworth, Aubrey Allicock, BBC singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams, 2018 Nonesuch Records