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