JULY 16, 1945. The gadget, as the scientists are calling it, has been hoisted up its tower. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army commander of the Manhattan Project, is beating up on the weatherman. Thunderheads have materialized from nowhere, threatening to set off the blast too soon. "The test will proceed as scheduled," Groves insists. "I demand a signed weather forecast. I warn you, if you are wrong, I will hang you."
The test in question - code name, Trinity - is the detonation of the first atomic bomb. And no one knows how it will go: the atmosphere itself could catch fire, scorching the planet, singeing the blue from the sky.
This glimpse may convey the apocalyptic suspense of the first-act finale of "Doctor Atomic," John Adams's new opera, his third, opening on Saturday night at the San Francisco Opera. The libretto is the handiwork of Peter Sellars, Mr. Adams's longtime collaborator, on board as director, as he was for "Nixon in China" (1987) and "The Death of Klinghoffer" (1991).
Like its forerunners, "Doctor Atomic" deals with what the critic Michael Steinberg has called "brief but emblematic events in recent history." And it examines that history very seriously: a working version of the script, not intended for public consumption, cites the source of every line. "Everything comes from somewhere," Mr. Sellars said between rehearsals recently.
As for the idea, it was Mr. Sellars who suggested the first two. The idea for the third came from Pamela Rosenberg, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, now in the final season of a troubled tenure. She was thinking originally of an American "Faust," she said. Her candidate for the role was the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known to posterity as the father of the atomic bomb.
"I wasn't thinking in the Goethe mode, of knowledge at any price," Ms. Rosenberg said recently by phone from San Francisco. "It was the quest for ultimate knowledge, which led, in the 20th century and for the first time in history, to the possibility of actually wiping out humanity."
But after the punishment Mr. Adams took (and continues to take) over "The Death of Klinghoffer" - an account of the infamous hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro - he had not exactly been waiting for her call. When Ms. Rosenberg approached him in November 1999 about a commission, his answer was unequivocal: "I have no more operas left in me."
Yet the sphinxlike Oppenheimer caught his interest. Apart from his scientific genius, Oppenheimer balanced a keen sense of ethics against his contempt for the mirthless follies of global politics. He was deeply versed in the humanities, a student of Sanskrit, the metaphysical Elizabethans and the world-weary Baudelaire. The name he chose for the Trinity project alludes to the John Donne Holy Sonnet that begins "Batter my heart, three person'd God": 14 ferocious lines bristling with images of warfare, imprisonment and sexual violation. The fictional Oppenheimer - portrayed by the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley - sings them in a setting of imposing majesty.
The Faustian parallel struck Mr. Adams as a contrivance. "I didn't want this opera to come into the world loaded with that baggage," he said recently by telephone from his home in Berkeley. "This was World War II. These young and very young scientists thought they were in a heroic race to save civilization."
The physicist Freeman Dyson, who knew the major players on the Manhattan Project, has described in vivid terms the fatal attraction of the bomb, the seductive sense it gave its makers of the infinite powers at their command. Though Mr. Dyson has characterized Oppenheimer as "a philosopher-king," he has also spoken of Oppenheimer's "Faustian bargain."
"I would make a sharp distinction between Oppenheimer and the rest of them," he said last week from his office at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. "Oppenheimer was in command. He understood very well that weapons were a deadly threat to humanity for the indefinite future. It was an awesome responsibility to bring that about. For the sake of short-range gains, he was risking immense future losses."
"DOCTOR ATOMIC" will surely not deliver history's final verdict on Oppenheimer. It may, however, lay to rest persistent misconceptions about Mr. Adams's work, which has been described since "Nixon in China" as "CNN opera." The label applies well enough to other operas "ripped from the headlines." But it never really applied to the Adams operas, which sought from the first to lend topical subjects the timelessness and ambiguity of myth.
In truth, the Adams operas barely even tell what a reporter can recognize as a story. With clockwork efficiency, they set up a premise, then recede deeper and deeper into the players' consciousness. Jonathon Keats, in the September issue of Wired, wrote, "The plot of 'Doctor Atomic' isn't so much narrative arc as chain reaction."
But that's plot. The deeper action of the Adams operas lies in contemplation, in dissecting the texture of reality - and therefore, the value - in lives we are apt to judge too glibly.
With his round face, round spectacles and quizzical expression, Mr. Adams looks every inch the ironist. By his own account, he is not a religious person. Yet he has poured his heart into the contemporary nativity oratorio "El Niño" as well as into concert pieces with titles like "On the Transmigration of Souls" (commemorating the victims of Sept. 11) and "The Dharma at Big Sur" (for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles). Bearing the name of a founding father to whom, so far as he knows, he is no kin, he functions as America's undeclared composer laureate, the one whose music is communion - the vehicle for the most personal as well as the most all-embracing utterance - in times of woe and celebration.
"I think the religious dimension to John's operas is really important," Mr. Sellars said. "Every human being has a spiritual dimension. That's one reason why the arts still exist: to speak to and to nourish the spiritual dimension at a time when people are hungry and yearning and don't go to church. To me, the theater is a really important place. Nobody has to be a believer to walk in the door."
Beneath a surface that looks entirely of our time, the distance to Greek tragedy in its original form turns out to be no distance at all.
The carnival atmosphere surrounding the premiere of "Nixon" made this aspect easy to disregard. Liberals - broadly speaking, Mr. Adams's likeliest constituency - were startled at the nonjudgmental, even sympathetic, way that opera depicted the title figure: a jaunty Columbus of diplomacy, setting sail for an ancient world that to him (and us) was new.
Mr. Adams has described "Nixon in China" as "part parody, part epic," which in retrospect seems about right. ("News!" Nixon exults on landing in Beijing, having shaken the hand of Prime Minister Chou En-Lai. "News has a kind of mystery. Just now, the world was listening.") But that is no bad formula for myth: a template - a scientist might say a model - of human destiny. A mythic character is one whose journey blazes a new pattern of possibilities, clear yet fraught with mystery and paradox. Indeed, "Klinghoffer," which had a ceremonial, almost ritual gravity, was originally criticized as romanticizing Palestinians, but the film adaptation by Penny Woolcock was withdrawn from the Ramallah International Film Festival last year lest Palestinians read it as pro-Israeli.
Operas in past centuries looked for the mythic dimension in figures from the legends and history of antiquity. Mr. Adams, Mr. Sellars and their companion in the first two operas - the librettist Alice Goodman - found it closer to hand.
Trinity no longer has the immediacy of current events. "To me, the Los Alamos story and the bomb in particular is the ultimate American myth," Mr. Adams said. "It constellates so many of the defining themes of our American consciousness. Industry and invention leading to a 'triumph' of science over nature; the presumption of military dominance on behalf of what we perceive as the 'right' values; the newfound power to bring about annihilation of life; and the moral and ethical conundrums that the possession of such an instrument of destruction force upon us."
In opera, it is music that has the last word, and in the long run it is on the music that the mythic claims of the Adams triptych will rest. In "Doctor Atomic," the dialogue from the historical record trips along, mostly at one note per syllable, musically distinctive yet scrupulously faithful to the contours and rhythms of real speech, on the pattern of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande." To open windows on the characters' inner lives, Mr. Sellars interpolates poetry, which Mr. Adams sets as latter-day arias in his most eloquent, wide-arching lyric style.
Like the dialogue, the poems all "come from somewhere." For Oppenheimer, there are passages of Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita, and that terrifying Holy Sonnet of Donne's.
Missing from the concept at first were women's voices, a serious flaw in traditional opera. "Apart from the first scene," Mr. Adams said, "the action takes place at the detonation site, where women were forbidden. We had to get them in in an imaginative way."
For the meditations of Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, Mr. Sellars chose poems by Muriel Rukeyser, whose personal history, social conscience and moral discrimination resonated with Oppenheimer's own. Besides Kitty, we meet her Navajo maid, Pasqualita, whose song weaves in a strand from the ancient native culture, attuned to the rhythms of a living earth.
"I use Goethe's term 'Das Ewig Weibliche,' the Eternal Feminine," Mr. Adams said. "I think women have a moral awareness that men have perhaps not achieved." Not only is that term from Goethe, it also occurs in the final lines of "Faust," the example Mr. Adams shunned.
But the principal carrier of the mythic message - as in Wagner's "Ring des Nibelungen" - is the orchestra, of which Mr. Adams is a master. The apocalyptic material of "Doctor Atomic" has inspired him to instrumental writing of genuinely Wagnerian multiplicity, roiling with all the emotions the characters ignore, gloss over or suppress. Donald Runnicles, a seasoned Wagnerian, will conduct the premiere.
Mr. Adams said that when he looked back on "Nixon," "very often I think the orchestra is like a great big ukulele. Nixon sings about the news on top of what's almost just strumming. The musical interest is in the chord changes, the breathless energy, the pulse. It's not anywhere like the serpentine churning inner activity that I've got going on in 'Doctor Atomic.' "
That churning is heard beneath the Donne sonnet with which Oppenheimer closes the first act. Still more ominously, it dominates the finale of the second act, which describes the countdown to the Trinity blast. "For Wagner, in 'The Ring,' " Mr. Sellars said, "the end of the world was an image. For us it isn't. It's a specific reality. For our generation, it's minutes to midnight and the clock is ticking. John sets that."
The ending is the one part of "Doctor Atomic" Mr. Adams refuses to discuss. He has repeatedly said that orchestrating the explosion would be laughable, and that he had to find another way. From the printed score and a complete synthesized rendition on CD, it is clear that the music, time itself, slows down. On tape, there are screams, quiet talking and the voice of a Japanese woman.
The electronic version, powerful in itself, promises that the impact of the music played by a live orchestra in real time will be tremendous. Yet here, more than anywhere else in the score, the leap from canned to acoustic sound seems hard to imagine. Like Oppenheimer at the countdown, we can only speculate.