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“In art, one of our jobs is to take something you look at every day but never see…and say ‘Look at that!’”

—Peter Sellars

Theirs was a project so cloaked in secrecy that not even Vice President Truman knew it existed—a team of top scientists from around the world, assembled high on a mesa in New Mexico, were brought together in 1941 by mastermind physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer to create the most horrifically destructive weapon in human history—the atomic bomb.

Director Peter Sellars addresses an unseen person while a man speaking on a headset stands behind him
Director Peter Sellars on stage at the San Francisco Opera House, with cast and crew of Doctor Atomic

A black and white photo of a giant fireball in the desert
Fireball from the Grable nuclear test, one half second after ignition, at the Nevada Test Site, 1953

Donald Runnicles conducts from the orchestra pit
Maestro Donald Runnicles conducts the final countdown of Doctor Atomic

A black and white photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer in an academic black robe
Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton University, 1966

A structure of cement and metal piping at the Nevada atomic test site
Shelter at Nevada Test Site, crushed by the force of the 1957 Priscilla nuclear test

Peter Sellars, with arms raised and mouth open
Peter Sellars directs an early rehearsal of Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera

Sixty years later, John Adams, a composer with strong roots in minimalism, and stage director Peter Sellars, renowned for his contemporary staging of classical operas and plays, joined forces to forge a monumental new opera. Based on the 48-hour period leading up to the Trinity Test, the first-ever explosion of this implausible new weapon, the film WONDERS ARE MANY: The Making of Doctor Atomic chronicles the creative journey to craft an opera that captures the perilous hazards of the times in the waning days of World War II.

Filmmaker Jon Else, who directed The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb in 1980 and who won the first-ever prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, portrays the shared journey of composer John Adams and stage director Peter Sellers in their fifth creative collaboration. WONDERS ARE MANY shows these two men as they work feverishly against their own deadline to achieve the world’s first opera about the definitive weapon of mass destruction.

Weaving together both archival footage and interviews, WONDERS ARE MANY mirrors the staging of the opera with the frenetic pace of the top secret Manhattan Project team: their doubts and ambitions, as well as their personal struggles as they grappled with both the science of their invention and the implications of the power they had unleashed.

Looming at the center of both the opera and the film is the enigmatic and exceptional figure of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer—the brilliant physicist, the frail aesthete who spoke five languages including Sanskrit, a man who read poetry and, unbelievably, married a former communist at a time when keeping the communist-led Soviet Union government from developing its own atom bomb was a top priority.

WONDERS ARE MANY intertwines the frenetic backstage action at the opera house with the real World War II events that inform the drama on stage. Dramatic, recently declassified footage of nuclear testing, John Adams’s avant-garde score and the antics of a 250-person opera company racing toward opening night under Peter Sellars’ direction all come together to make a unique documentary film.


Doctor Atomic premiered at the San Francisco Opera on October 1, 2005. The opera was subsequently revised, with substantial staging changes by director Peter Sellars, half a dozen musical changes by composer John Adams and Jessica Rivera replacing Kristine Jepson in the role of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty. In June, 2007, Doctor Atomic had its European debut in Amsterdam.

A new production of the opera, directed by Penny Woolcock, was performed in October, 2008 at the Metropolitan Opera and was shown in MetHD in November, 2008. Woolcock directed the film version of John Adams’s 1991 opera, Death of Klinghoffer.

Production of Doctor Atomic is currently underway in Chicago, again directed by Sellars.

The collaboration between composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars continues. Within nine months of the premier of Doctor Atomic, Adams again teamed up with Sellars to stage Adams’s new opera The Flowering Tree (his own version of The Magic Flute). Peter Sellars directed its world premier in Vienna in November, 2006; it has since been staged around the world in numerous other locations.

Peter Sellars will also be directing Adams’ Nixon In China at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2011.

Related Links and Resources

WONDERS ARE MANY: The Making of Doctor Atomic
Explore the film’s official site and learn more about the filmmakers and the San Francisco Opera creative team.

Doctor Atomic: San Francisco Opera’s Production
Gain new insights into the production and staging of Doctor Atomic. Visit with key members, witness behind-the-scenes machinations, learn more about the historical events leading up to the development of the bomb and see how they were integrated into the opera.

Metropolitan Opera Production of Doctor Atomic
Learn all about the New York Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Doctor Atomic. Explore the science and the history of the bomb, as well as the current implications of living in the atomic age.

Exploratorium: Doctor Atomic: Commentary on an Opera
Explore the dawn of the atomic age, as ushered in by the real-life characters in Doctor Atomic. The Exploratorium’s consulting scientists have annotated a synopsis of the opera and selections of its libretto.

PBS: Other Voices: Peter Sellars
See another side of one of the creators of Doctor Atomic. In this PBS interview, director Peter Sellars reflects on the role of spirituality in contemporary life and posits art as a bridge between the human and the divine.

Physicians For Social Responsibility
Learn about Physicians for Social Responsibility, winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most respected medical and health groups working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons.

Union of Concerned Scientists
Find out how top U.S. scientists are monitoring the performance of nuclear plants and their regulators—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Learn which plants pose security risks and how UCS is mobilizing to raise industry standards.

Nuclear Threat Initiative
Learn about the group of bipartisan heavy-hitters who have joined together to eliminate the threat of annihilation through all-out nuclear war.

Abolition 2000: Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons
Discover this global network made up of 90 nations working to enact an international treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework.

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