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


For anyone with a broad interest in opera, Wide Open Opera’s Irish premiere of John Adams’s Nixon in China is a no-brainer. It is, as was remarked back in the 1980s when it was new, “a work of the kind destined to create a sensation even among those who normally pay little or no attention to the medium of opera”. As the title suggests, it is about US president Richard Nixon’s ground-breaking 1972 visit to China, and the list of characters includes his wife, Pat; Chairman Mao; and the US’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Opera of the late 20th century does not necessarily appeal to lovers of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart. What does Adams think the piece offers to conservative fans of the form and also to newcomers to opera?

“Despite its reputation for being an opera in minimalist style, an opera based on contemporary events, one of the delicious things about it is that it’s also a parody. So at the beginning of act two you have the traditional solo moment for the lead lady, in this case Mrs Nixon, who tours Peking. And you have da capo arias: for example, I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung, the grand coloratura aria which ends act two. You have several long vocal ensembles; virtually all of act three is a vocal ensemble. Plus it’s also an opera with a lot of spectacle. All political summits are highly choreographed spectacles.”

He doesn’t want to sell his opera by how it relates to operatic convention. “I’m simply saying that if you’re terrified of contemporary opera, you can find those aspects of parody in Nixon in China, and it does delight a lot of people.”

It’s come a long way
The opera has travelled widely and well since its 1987 premiere in Houston. It quickly made its way to Europe, for the 1988 Edinburgh Festival, and has even been seen at the Met in New York, not a venue that’s ever been particularly welcoming of contemporary work.

“I think the reason that it’s usually a success is because it deals with matters that are very much on our minds. For me, Nixon deals with a collision of the two great contrasting philosophies of the 20th century, which are: capitalism, which is the idea that one can place a monetary value on every aspect of our existence; and communism, based ideally on the idea that no one should go hungry, and no one should become ridiculously, selfishly wealthy.

“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.”

He sounds almost ecstatic as he recounts how it worked out. “It was just one of those miraculous things that you pray will happen in your life, but rarely do. Peter knew this young woman who had written very little poetry. He had been a classmate of hers at Harvard. She had only one poem to show. But I saw exactly the kind of technique I wanted, and Alice came on to the project and produced one of the great libretti of our time. In fact, I think both of the libretti that she did for me, Nixon and The Death of Klinghoffer, are really peerless. They can’t be matched by anyone since Auden wrote The Rake’s Progress.

Klinghoffer deals with the terrorist hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by the Palestine Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of American Leon Klinghoffer. And Adams’s third opera, Doctor Atomic, concerns the atom bomb tests in New Mexico in 1945. Where might he venture next?

“There are two things that have really obsessed me of late. One is the resurgence of racism in the United States. Whether it’s stories from my own back yard – I live just a few blocks away from Oakland, California, where the Black Panthers were active in the 1960s – or maybe something from the South. But something that can grab hold of that mythic situation that persists.

“The other thing is the whole issue of the invasiveness of the internet and the digital world, and privacy. I really do see the potential for a kind of Brave New World/ 1984 happening. Everyone is still so enchanted and dazzled by the glamour and novelty of the internet that only recently have people begun to perceive the dark side of it. A lot of this has to do with Snowden and Julian Assange. But it’s deeper and more unsettling than even that.”

Wide Open Opera’s revival of Vancouver Opera’s 2010 production of Nixon in China is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday

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