• Doctor Atomic Post Transmission Activity

"Ripped from the Headlines": A Close Look at the Subject Matter that Makes Opera Tick

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Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their “My Highs & Lows” sheet, as well as any other thoughts about the Met production—in short, to see themselves as Doctor Atomic experts.

Based on historical events, Doctor Atomic is somewhat different from other operas. It was the third such work by Adams and Sellars (the first two, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, are based on events in Richard Nixon’s presidency and an event in the Middle East conflict), and the creators have been accused of “ripping” their operas from headlines, of writing “CNN operas.” Adams and Sellars argue that their work goes much deeper than the headlines, that they are dealing with the kind of profound human drama we often ignore, caught up in daily events.

Begin by listing operas your students are familiar with. What’s the subject? What’s the underlying crisis? In short, what makes a story operatic? Characters? Relationships? Morality? Conflict? Fiery feelings? Does an opera require some profound, transcendent underlying problem to be successful?

One way to think about this issue is to consider differences between opera and film. Students can imagine a movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atom bomb.

  • What would they include? What would they leave out?
  • How would the plot be different from Doctor Atomic?
  • What can an artist do in film that can’t be done on the opera stage?
  • What can opera bring audiences that movies can’t?

As follow-up, in class or at home, students should pick an event that took place during their lifetime and imagine how they’d turn it into an opera.

  • What is the underlying emotional or moral crisis?
  • Who would the characters be? What voices would each have—soprano, tenor, bass?
  • What would happen in each act?
  • Which moments in the plot would demand arias, whether to reveal the characters’ thoughts or to advance the story?