The Simple Provocation of Doctor Atomic

Feb 27, 2017

Few inventions were as complicated as the atomic bomb. But the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns discovered that Curtis Opera Theatre’s production of the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic couldn't be simpler—or more provocative.

[Music: John Adams, Doctor Atomic]

David Patrick Stearns: The stage of the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater looks like everything in general and nothing in particular. A 30-foot disc rises out of center stage, sumptuously covered with carpeting.

R. B. Schlather: Sometimes it functions like a soap box. Sometimes it functions like a bed  Sometimes it functions like a bench in a canteen.... that’s what we were looking for—something architectural that could be all these things.

DPS: And more, says stage director R.B. Schlather. With hardly a mention of a neutron, the Doctor Atomic opera is about the philosophical, Faustian implications of what went down in 1945, which is why the production’s simplicity dissolves the separation between singers and listeners.

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer has never been less remote. He sings the John Donne sonnet “Batter My Heart” at the end of Act I. Baritone Jonathan McCullough will be choreographed while doing so.

RBS: He was tormented whether this was the right thing to do or not... and a lot of the physicality is his torment over what’s going on... he should be punished for his actions and nobody indicts that, so he takes it upon himself.


DPS: Departing from representational reality in a story like this is a tall order. How does Schlather know when he has it finished?

RBS: When it feels right. When I start crying. When everything lines up, the music, the text the bodies. The visual. When it all lines up into one gesture, to me, that’s what I’m looking for.

DPS: With any luck, the audience will also weep—and for the right reasons.

Curtis Opera Theatre presents John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Kimmel Center on March 2nd and 4th at 7:30 pm