Scene from Act I of our current production. Photo by Cory Weaver
But the notion of an opera featuring Richard Nixon simply seemed so outlandish that many assumed the only form it could possibly take would be as a politically correct parody, a la Saturday Night Live
. And schadenfreude
over America’s disgraced president hardly felt cutting edge by this point. What they had not been counting on was a work of multifaceted richness that juxtaposed operatic tradition with an ebulliently innovative spirit—all the while musing on contradictions buried deep within the American psyche.
Some of the earliest critical responses even chastised Nixon in China
for being too “soft” by not rendering its title character sufficiently cartoonlike. Another interpretive angle, which tried to pigeonhole the work as a sensation-seeking exercise in pop art, came up with tags like “docu-opera” and “CNN opera.” Usually meant as a derisive putdown, this line of thought unwittingly replicated the very phenomenon that Nixon in China
so incisively critiques and challenges: the way complex events are packaged by the media into ready-to-consume, predictable, clichéd narratives. As Nixon sings in his entrance aria, “news” is a focal point, but the opera takes us to a place where we experience “news that stays
news”—to borrow a famous phrase
from Ezra Pound.
Four decades have passed since Nixon paid his game-changing visit to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972. Building an opera around this in the final years of the Cold War would likely have spelled oblivion for something that had set out to be merely satirical or “topical.” The subtleties of Nixon in China
took some time to sink in following the initial flurry of interest, but over the past twenty-five years it has gradually won recognition not only as a contemporary classic but as a landmark in the history of opera. In 2000, when the original Houston production was revived in London, Guardian
critic Andrew Clements wrote that Nixon
“echoes the scale and scope of Don Carlos
Still, the self-conscious use of recent historical figures is what had made Nixon in China
seem such an unlikely prospect in the first place. Certainly it struck Adams as dubious when director Peter Sellars initially proposed the overall concept in 1983. Only in his mid-twenties at the time, Sellars was already laying the foundations for his poetically involving and provocative theatrical style. The title Nixon in China
, which he pitched from the start as a tongue-in-cheek play on such august-sounding titles as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride
and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos
—conveyed with a wink the essence of the idea: the convergence of recent American history and mythic archetypes.
Adams was immediately intrigued by Sellars’s infectious enthusiasm. Ten years younger than the composer, Sellars had intuited an innate dramatic sensibility from instrumental scores he already knew by Adams. Despite their significant differences in temperament and aesthetic positions regarding art as an agent of social change, the encounter would blossom into one of the most enduring creative partnerships in opera.
Yet Adams remained skeptical of the Nixon idea. His own first reaction foreshadowed what he would later encounter from those who couldn’t imagine anything beyond a one-note political satire: “[It] only reminded me of all those bad comics who did Nixon impressions.” Sellars encouraged him to continue ruminating on it, and the topic began to haunt him. Within two years, the Nixon concept had even come to seem an inevitable choice for his debut opera.
(L to R) John Adams, Alice Goodman, and Peter Sellars at a 1987 press conference
in Houston for the world premiere of Nixon in China
This was material that touched on his personal memories of coming of age during the Cold War; at the same time, its larger mythological resonance beckoned to be tapped. In his memoir Hallelujah Junction
, Adams observes that the “carefully staged media event” of Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China “overflowed with an abundance of themes to pick from. Nixon and Mao virtually embodied the twentieth century’s great agonistic struggle for human happiness: capitalism versus communism; the market economy versus the social welfare state.”
Nixon in China
was also an unlikely prospect in that composer and librettist were newcomers to opera. Hitherto Adams had not even written for solo voices. But during the period right before he decided to plunge into the Nixon
score, Adams had been priming himself for the opera using a purely orchestral canvas. Harmonielehre
, his early symphonic masterpiece, premiered in 1985 in Davies Hall, crowning a three-year tenure as the San Francisco Symphony’s composer in residence. It helped set the stage for Nixon in China
—and for the rapid ascent of Adams’s international reputation resulting from the opera.
The composer told Sellars he preferred to have a poetic libretto, figuring that “the artifice of verse might lift the story and its characters, so numbingly familiar to us from the news media, out of the ordinary and onto a more archetypal plane.” Sellars then enlisted Alice Goodman, a former fellow student at Harvard, who brought vigorous imagination and a profound sense of collaborative responsibility to her newfound role as poet-librettist. As she commented in a note to the premiere recording of Nixon
: “We have done our best to make our disagreements counterpoints; not to drown each other out, but, like the characters in the opera, each to be as eloquent as possible.”
Thematically, Goodman set out on a voracious quest for information, burying herself in mountains of American and Chinese source material to mine theatrically promising angles. Her libretto enriches this polyphony by weaving in yet another layer of familiar operatic tropes and set pieces, using these as a framework to structure the political and personal narrative: the Mussorgsky-like use of an epic chorus to comment on history, the grand arrival of the Spirit of ’76
, the contest of wills between two leaders, drinking songs, a pair of character-defining arias for the women, a ballet interlude, and a Mozartean ensemble finale. Sellars has noted how Mozart’s great collaborations with Da Ponte left a significant stamp on Nixon
: “as Mozart reimagined what opera could be by reinventing the ensemble, we wanted to reinvent the ensemble on our terms and find the basis of equality and exchange—which is of course what we’re looking for globally in our generation.”
Goodman’s formal choice of rhymed couplets, elegant in their concision, allows for a tremendous flexibility of tone and idiom, which Adams proceeds to delineate in his musical portrayals of each situation—from the highly calculated “heroic” poses of the presidential arrival to the intimate and spontaneous confessions permeating the final act. As a further subtlety, Goodman’s verse frequently resorts to slant rhyme: the pairing “grace” and “grass” from the opera’s concluding couplet is an example. These are intentionally imperfect “half rhymes,” resulting in a slight dissonance that adds an extra charge to the language.
Far from being a liability, the fact that he and Goodman were operatic tyros had a creatively liberating effect. Choreographer Mark Morris, who would become a familiar figure at San Francisco Ballet starting in the 1990s, brought a similarly fresh perspective. Nixon in China
was from day one an ambitious enterprise with no time for tried-and-true but wearily shopworn formulas to solve the musical and dramaturgical enigmas posed by its complex emotional dynamic. Even a quarter century on, an exhilarating sense of invention and discovery—of reclaiming the epiphanies of “grand opera” for an era jaded by oversaturation with media—is still thrillingly apparent.
Take the aria that first introduces us to Nixon. Adams has already established an exciting atmosphere of public spectacle through the opening chorus and his full-throttle orchestral depiction of the presidential landing. Almost anything would seem anticlimactic in its wake, yet Adams manages to rev the energy up to a new level while embarking on an intricate, multilayered psychological portrait. At first Nixon sings with the machismo confidence of a superhero. But the very magnitude of his visit entails the possibility of a spectacular failure, intensifying his self-consciousness of “the eyes and ears of history” and drawing him into an inner world of memories and gnawing paranoia. The pattern for the entire opera is contained here in microcosm: the heroic image manicured for the public yields to an interior, private sequence of ungovernable associations that get to the heart of the matter. Meanwhile, Adams teasingly juxtaposes a bel canto stereotype (the quasi-nonsensical, obsessive repetitions of a word or even a single syllable) against allusions to the pulsating chords of early rock ‘n’ roll to create an indelible impression of Nixon’s hamminess.
Conductor John DeMain (left) and Adams in rehearsal for Nixon.
Photo courtesy Houston Grand Opera Archives
This operatic “role-playing”—reimagining the characters in terms of familiar vocal archetypes—introduces an ongoing counterpoint that also applies to the rest of the cast. It further emphasizes the gulf between image and reality. Chairman Mao thinks of himself as a revolutionary heldentenor: his vocal line is centered in a part of the range that seems particularly absurd given his actual frailty (he is a generation older than Nixon), while a reinforcing trio of secretaries literally serve as his “backup” singers. Chiang Ch’ing, his wife, is a militantly Communist Queen of the Night whose high-flying notes hint at her murderous derangement. Pat Nixon sheds her dutiful image as the stereotypically retiring wife in the aria “This is prophetic!” Her unadorned lyric soprano conveys a longing to reconnect with the “simple virtues” of the American middle class, her reference point for a social utopia amid the Communist paradise. Henry Kissinger is a Rossinian basso buffo
—a counterpart to the ironic treatment of Mao—while the tormenting self-doubt expressed by Verdi’s baritone rulers finds its echo in Chou En-lai, the opera’s most enigmatic character.
The baritone Nixon himself reflects aspects of this conflicted prototype as he steps back from his primary, public image. Adams points out that capturing the “historical” Nixon was not his aim— he was attracted to the Shakespearean tensions of a man “who combined vanitas and idealism, who could be generous and yet dangerously paranoid.” Indeed, the real story of Nixon in China
is never quite where we expect to find it. The iconic stage pageant from the historical record basically ends with the banquet scene closing the first act. But the opera continues to peel back the surface where “news” is made in order to find what lies beneath. Even within the grand banquet, Adams inserts revealing moments where the necessary masks are beginning to slip away—just as with Nixon’s initial “News” aria.
The fluid musical language Adams develops in Nixon
proves an ideal vehicle for dramatizing this slippage of identity. So, too, is his non-doctrinaire approach to Minimalism, which allows Adams to use elements of its vocabulary—repetitive motivic and harmonic patterns and pulsating rhythms, with an acknowledged debt to Philip Glass’s Satyagraha
—as part of a much broader expressive palette. His score ranges across operatic history and freely mixes in vernacular American idioms as well, from Glenn Miller’s big band music (the composer’s initial sonic image for Nixon himself) to Jerry Lee Lewis.
But this promiscuous dazzle of references transcends merely clever pastiche, much as the opera goes far beyond cartoonish spoofing. The scene that is
the most outrageously parodistic even mimics pastiche as a component of its parody. Adams mercilessly evokes a kind of “music by committee” kitsch to underscore the big entertainment at the end of Act Two, in which the presidential entourage attends a performance of Chiang Ch’ing’s ballet The Red Detachment of Women
. The further irony in this scene is that the ballet manages to fuse the worst aspects of Communist and “bourgeois” Western abuses of art together: bombastic propaganda and sentimental tear-jerker. It is this intensification of artifice that causes the division between image and reality to blur, as far as the First Couple is concerned.
In the brief final act, the authentic expressiveness of Adams’s music poses a stark contrast to the ballet’s manipulative pastiche. The first two acts are structured around overtly dramatic events suggesting parallels with grand opera, focusing first on the men in power and then on the diametrically opposite portrayals of Pat Nixon versus Chiang Ch’ing; both acts likewise play up the confrontation between alien cultures. But the third act takes a step back from all the preceding events as a shared sense of exhaustion has set in. The chorus, which establishes the epic backdrop beginning the opera and provides a handy metaphor for the heroic people trumpeted by Communist doctrine, steps aside as the public realm cedes to an elegiac, surreal montage of private ruminations. In the privacy of bedrooms, everyone onstage becomes progressively wrapped up in memories of their former selves—when their dreams and ideals were formed. Chairman Mao and Chiang Ch’ing feed off each other’s self-mythologizing, while the Nixons re-enact their familiar rituals of recounting the past.
Adams’s singular gift for making the orchestra a character in its own right underlies the sound world of Nixon in China
. An amped-up nucleus of expanded brass, saxophones, and synthesizer anchors the muscular and brightly colored tonal palette the composer has compared to “Technicolor orchestration.” But Nixon
actually features a wealth of timbral combinations to reinforce subtexts of the drama, especially beguiling in the chamber-like textures and nostalgic fragments of the final act’s nocturne. In place of power politics and public posturing, a strain of melancholy eroticism fades in and out as long-repressed questions and doubts surface.
It is a remarkably daring choice: to end this opera based on a defining moment from history so indecisively, as an enigmatically tapering decrescendo. The internal echoes and symmetries that accrue throughout Nixon in China
here become especially poignant and provocative. As Chou En-lai reflects on whether the revolution ever accomplished anything, the news turns out to be irrelevant. The denial of a grand finale further refines our sense of what is at stake. We hear a more darkly tinted variant of the expectantly rising musical gesture that began the journey—a question that appears unanswerable.
Thomas May is a regular contributor to San Francisco Opera’s programs. His books include
Decoding Wagner and
The John Adams Reader.