Sketches of Grief: Genesis, Musical Development, and Revision in the Operas of John Adams, Peter Sellars, and Alice Goodman


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




This project examines the conceptual and musical development of John Adams’s operas “Nixon in China” (1987), “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991), and “Doctor Atomic” (2005). Primary sources from Adams’s archive reveal that the composer’s creative processes were determined by the problems he and his collaborators aimed to solve. Among these challenges included finding a means to respond to subjects of devastating magnitude, including human rights abuses in Nixon, terrorism in Klinghoffer, and the events leading up to Hiroshima in Doctor Atomic. Fruitful undercurrents of meaning lie in what can be reconstructed of the dynamic processes leading up to the operas as we know them, offering insight into not only Adams’s compositional practice, but also into how art can—and cannot—respond to tragedy.