Political overtures: Nixon boards another flight to China

Composer John Adams ‘didn’t really know’ what he was doing when he wrote his first opera – that hasn’t stopped ‘Nixon in China’, which does exactly what it says on its musical tin, travelling around the world

Fri, May 9, 2014, 01:00

“Of course these collisions take place in this deliciously ironic setting of Nixon and Mao, both of whom were kind of self-created cartoons. So there is humour in the opera. But it’s also an opera with a great deal of gravitas in the background: the murder of millions of people in the Chinese communist revolution; the disgraceful behaviour of Mao; the contrasting roles of the women: Pat, the ideal Republican wife, and Jiang Qing, the power behind the throne. All of these elements are there, along with music that is I think particularly, uniquely mine. It’s music that is influenced by American minimalism. But it’s also influenced by big-band jazz, and traditional opera music from the 19th century.”

Writing an opera hadn’t been high on the composer’s agenda in the 1980s. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. This was my first opera. Neither I nor Alice Goodman [the librettist] had much experience at all in opera. Only once in my entire adolescence did I attend an opera. I went and saw Aida at the old Met, didn’t understand a thing about it, and thought it was pretty awful. But I think I had it in my genes without even realising it.”

He gives the credit to his mother, who he describes as an extremely talented singing actor. “She had no training, so she did everything by ear and through the power of her innate musicality. She sang in local productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows: Carousel, Oklahoma, South Pacific. I watched her. I even was in a production of South Pacific with her. I was the little Polynesian boy, and she was Bloody Mary. That thespian gene was there, although I didn’t realise it at the time.”


Spurred by Sellars
The immediate spur to Nixon came from the director Peter Sellars. “He was then only in his mid-20s, and he had heard a piece of mine called Shaker Loops, and decided he wanted to make an opera with me. He even had the title in mind, although he wasn’t exactly clear what it was going to be about.”

The key decision in the creation of the opera was not directly about the music. It was that Adams “wanted a verse libretto. And that’s pretty rare these days. Most operas in English have prosaic libretti, in both the technical sense and the pejorative sense. When I listen to most American and British operas, I find the use of language so banal. I asked Peter if he could find a poet, and not necessarily any kind of poet, but a poet who could write in rhymed verse.”

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