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Uncommon man

John Adams's operas have laid the foundations of a distinctively American classical tradition. But,

"My first opera made me famous, my second made me infamous," wrote John Adams in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, published last year. In 1987, his Nixon in China transformed the world of opera with the boldness and originality of its subject and staging (by Peter Sellars), the brilliance of its libretto (by Alice Goodman) and its expressive music, both exuberant and reflective, parodic and sincere. On first hearing it, I was exhilarated by the realisation that this art form was not doomed simply to recycle works of the past, but that it was still capable of producing a masterpiece.

In 1991 the same team of Adams, Sellars and Goodman produced The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise liner, and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish American on board. Well-received at its premiere in Brussels, this measured and melancholy work, modelled in part on Bach's Passions, ran into a firestorm of criticism when it reached the United States.

"I must have been out of my mind to think that an opera which opened with a 'Chorus of Exiled Palestinians' would be received in Brooklyn with placid equanimity," says Adams now. The San Francisco performances in 1992 were picketed by Jewish activists and since then there has been no staging at any major US opera house. Glyndebourne did not take up its option to stage the work's British premiere, which finally happened four years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, though there have been many new productions elsewhere in the world. In 2003 the British director Penny Woolcock made a startlingly successful film version of Klinghoffer for Channel 4.

Now Doctor Atomic, Adams's third full-length opera (though he has written other pieces of musical theatre), is to have its UK premiere at the London Coliseum. There is again a grand and politically engaged theme: the Manhattan Project at Second World War and the first explosion in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. The central character is the project's charismatic and brilliant director, J Robert Oppenheimer, a figure of Promethean and Faustian stature in his achievement and tragedy.

The action takes place in the immediate run-up to the first test explosion as anxieties and tensions, technical and moral, ratchet up among the characters. The music is shatteringly powerful, especially Oppenheimer's aria at the end of the first act, a setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God". After Goodman withdrew from the project, Sellars compiled the libretto from a wide range of sources, including declassified documents of the period, the Bhagavadgita and poetry by Donne and Baudelaire. The London stage show (which has already been seen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York) is directed by Woolcock, in her first full operatic production.

Adams, now 62, is the leading American composer of his generation, still in full creative flow, prolific and inventive. I met him at the Juilliard School in New York to discuss the new opera and his career. He explained that Doctor Atomic deals with "the human species using its intellect to create destructive technologies".

"It's about the entire environmental crisis we face: global warming, overpopulation, pollution, all the problems we face in contemporary life that are so much to do with humans having the ability to create technologies which can be both a gift and a terrible burden," he says.

After four years of work on Doctor Atomic (which premiered in San Francisco in 2005), Adams wrote another opera, a shimmeringly beautiful chamber work called A Flowering Tree, to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. "It was as if I wanted to wash the plutonium off my hands. The model was The Magic Flute and the story we chose was so refreshingly different from Doctor Atomic. It's a simple Indian fable set in a timeless place where the only technology is an elephant."

At present Adams does not have a follow-up opera in the pipeline, although he says: "I always have my antennae out, as I feel that opera is what I do best. Though it struck me the other night [at the world premiere of his String Quartet] that I kill myself for years with these big projects but I can get so much satisfaction from just a quartet." He is working on a symphonic piece called City Noir, a commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to open Gustavo Dudamel's first season as the orchestra's principal conductor this October. (Adams will conduct the UK premiere in March next year with the LSO at the Barbican.)

"The inspiration was reading about LA's noir culture in the late 1940s, not just the noir films like The Big Sleep, though they very much express the mood of the time. I'll be using a jazz drummer and some instruments that are evocative of that period. Every American has had some experience with that noirish sensibility and music of those films, and I wanted to use it as a jumping-off point. So far what I have is new music with occasional flashes of previous orchestral pieces of mine. Little moments where Naive and Sentimental Music [1997-98] and even pieces as far back as Harmonielehre peek out through the curtain. It has to be just half an hour, not a minute more, as it's being telecast across the world from Disney Hall."

Adams's work is filled with American subjects and concerns: his music theatre piece I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky dealt with the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. It seemed only fitting that he was commissioned to memorialise the victims of September 11 with his On the Transmigration of Souls. He is aware, he says, of trying to build an American music. "I love, for example, when I read George Eliot or Dickens, how it's a delicious expression of English traits, English identity. Same thing with Debussy's Frenchness and Bartók's Hungarian-which is essentially a European invention, it's an enjoyable feeling taking that vessel and injecting it with American sensibility."

I ask him what he feels about becoming a sort of American national treasure - their composer laureate, as it were, perhaps occupying the space that Aaron Copland filled a generation ago. "I would say you have to understand that in America classical music, and in particular, contemporary classical music, means nothing to 99.9 per cent of the population.

"This country treats popular culture as something hallowed. Even intellectuals in the universities believe that popular culture is perhaps the greatest achievement in American life, so to be trying to create works of art that are part of the canon of classical music requires an almost foolish sense of idealism. So when I'm asked what it's like to be famous I can only say that I'm very well known in this zip code here between Car­negie Hall and Lincoln Centre.

"The mass of American cultural life, most easily sampled by watching our horrible television, is profoundly middlebrow. One reason the Obama inauguration was so exciting for me was that the last thing a billion people saw before the oath was a violin, a cello, a piano and a clarinet [playing Air and Simple Gifts, by the film composer John Williams]. That would have been unthinkable even in Bill Clinton's time, because there is great value given to anti-intellectualism here. If you run for office you dumb yourself down. We're a country that produces great composers, great novelists and great painters and in many ways still leads the world in culture and achievement (computer science, for instance), but being an American is really an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

"Life today is very different from Copland's time. I remember as a kid in 1960 watching a celebration of Copland's 60th birthday - about the age I am now - telecast across the country. But the idea any classical composer could be considered important enough now to have a nationwide broadcast devoted to him is unthinkable. When Elliott Carter turned 100 last December there was one short ten-minute piece on National Public Radio. There was nothing on television, and I have 120 different cable channels at home.

"But I'm very pleased that I do have an audience. And that my music is very meaningful to them. People really do come up to me in the street and tell me how profoundly they have responded to my music and what it means to them. What composer could want anything more?"

"Doctor Atomic" has its British premiere at the London Coliseum on 25 February.

John Adams: the CV

1947 Born in Massachusetts, 15 February. Is taught clarinet by his father from an early age

1957 Begins composing aged ten. His first orchestral pieces are performed while he is still a teenager

1965 Starts studying composition at Harvard

1971 Moves to northern California, where he teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music between 1972 and 1983

1982 Appointed composer in residence of the San Francisco Symphony. Creates the orchestra's controversial "New and Unusual Music" series and writes several landmark works: Harmonium (1980-81), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonielehre (1984-85) and El Dorado (1991)

1985 Begins hugely successful collaboration with the poet Alice Goodman and the stage director Peter Sellars. The trio produce two acclaimed operas: Nixon in China (1985-87) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-91)

2003 Wins Pulitzer Prize for Music for On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), composed to commemorate the 11 September 2001 attacks

John Ridpath