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Modern Opera Hour

Modern Opera Hour: Doctor Atomic

by Seth Colter Walls

Modern Opera Hour: Doctor Atomic

About this playlist

Welcome to Modern Opera Hour, where we offer short-form guides to some of the latest classical music works written for the stage. (You can follow the series here.)

This week, we're looking at the recent John Adams opera Doctor Atomic, about scientist Robert Oppenheimer and the first nuclear test at Los Alamos, toward the end of World War II. Two full-length recordings of Doctor Atomic are out on the DVD market -- one by the Netherlands Opera, and another by the Metropolitan Opera -- so if the music on this playlist appeals, you can figure out a way to see the whole piece.

Critical consensus, steady since the opera's premiere in 2005, holds that the musical highlight of the piece is its closing Act I aria for Oppenheimer's character, titled "Batter My Heart" (a phrase from "Holy Sonnet 14" by John Donne, of which the real life Oppenheimer was fond). On the night before the fateful military test that will kick off the Nuclear Age, Oppenheimer's quotation of Donne's metaphysical poetry takes on a fraught, philosophical edge. And Adams' music -- at first lyrical, before it begins whipping itself into a post-minimalist frenzy -- proves equal to the weight and complexity of the moment. (The version in our playlist is from a recital by baritone Gerald Finely, who has played the role of Oppenheimer in every production thus far).

The role of the scientist's wife, Kitty, was played in New York by the talented young mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke (who subsequently recorded her character's finest aria, "Am I in Your Light?", on her own recital disc). These two excerpts from Doctor Atomic sit, on our playlist, alongside a purely instrumental symphony of music, adapted by Adams from his own opera. (Note how the third movement of the Doctor Atomic Symphony, "Trinity," is a reworking of the "Batter My Heart" aria, with the lead trumpet "singing" the Oppenheimer part.) So click play, and enjoy!

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