John Adams has been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera to compose "Doctor Atomic," a work about the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M., in the 1940s.

Alice Goodman, who collaborated on Adams's two previous operas, will write the libretto, which centers on J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Peter Sellars will direct, as he did the premiere productions of Adams's "Nixon in China" in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera and "The Death of Klinghoffer" in 1992 at the Theatre Royale de Monnaie in Brussels.

Donald Runnicles, the San Francisco Orchestra's music director since 1992, will conduct.

The premiere is scheduled for September 2005 at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. The production will be shared with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"It involves what I call American mythology," said Adams, 55. "That was what drew me to the 'Nixon in China' story as well. I grew up in the late 1950s and '60s, the worst part of the Cold War, and these images are planted in my consciousness."

The chief characters have not yet been cast. Oppenheimer will be sung by a baritone, and other characters include Edward Teller (bass-baritone), Kitty Oppenheimer (mezzo-soprano), Mici Teller (high mezzo-soprano), Elsie McMillan (high soprano) and a triple tenor role: Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper, King Juda of the Bikini Islands and scientist Edwin McMillan.

Orchestra General Director Pamela Rosenberg first suggested the idea to Adams in November 1999, 18 months before she formally took over the company.

"I wanted to have a new music drama by him after 'Klinghoffer' and 'Nixon in China.' I've got this incredible composer sitting right across the bay in Berkeley," she said.

Adams plans to start composing next summer, after finishing commissions for the San Francisco Symphony and the opening of Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

"I'm interested in using in part the structure of the 1950s science-fiction movie," Adams said. "These events were played out during a time when all those movies about bombs and monsters and strange genetic mutations were very popular, and they invaded the consciousness, the unconsciousness, of the country. That's why I chose the title, because it had a certain '50s, sci-fi resonance."

Adams has composed many works, including "El Nino" and "On the Transmigration of Souls," commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in remembrance of the victims of last year's terrorist attacks.

The San Francisco Orchestra also has staged the world premieres of Conrad Susa's "The Dangerous Liaisons" in 1994, Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1998 and Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" two years ago.