Nixon in China

Music by John Adams and Libretto by Alice Goodman

Commemorative special edition posters by Michael Schwab are available at the San Francisco Opera Shop.

John Adams’ rhythmically rich re-creation of a presidential trip to Beijing has established itself as a great American opera, a work of “clarity, simplicity, shocking elegance” that “will be around for the long haul” (The New York Times). A quarter-century after premiering at Houston Grand Opera under the leadership of David Gockley, this modern masterpiece makes its long-awaited Bay Area stage premiere. Michael Cavanagh’s “brilliantly effective” staging (Vancouver Sun) will feature Brian Mulligan, whose rich baritone thrilled audiences in San Francisco Opera’s Faust (2010) and Werther (2010), in the title role. Lawrence Renes, whose conducting of Adams’ Doctor Atomic won praise from London critics, will lead the orchestra. “What commands attention in the Nixon score is, quite simply, melody” (The New York Times).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s trip to China. Read an article by Kissinger adviser Winston Lord and journalist Leslie H. Gelb in The Daily Beast about this historic breakthrough event.

For a longer sound sample of Nixon in China, visit the Boosey & Hawkes website at

Production contains one instance of adult language and gunshots.

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes including two intermissions

Vancouver Opera production

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credit: Audio excerpts are from the Naxos recording of Nixon in China with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.669022-24)


Richard Nixon Brian Mulligan
Pat Nixon Maria Kanyova *
Mao Tse-tung Simon O’Neill *
Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung) Hye Jung Lee *
Chou En-lai Chen-Ye Yuan *
Henry Kissinger Patrick Carfizzi
Nancy T'ang Ginger Costa-Jackson *
Second Secretary Buffy Baggott
Third Secretary Nicole Birkland *
Wu Ching-Hua Chiharu Shibata
Hung Ch'ang-Ch'ing Bryan Ketron

Production Credits

Conductor Lawrence Renes *
Director Michael Cavanagh
Set Designer Erhard Rom *
Costume Designer Parvin Mirhady *
Lighting Designer Christopher Maravich
Projection Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Wen Wei Wang
Sound Designer Mark Grey

* San Francisco Opera Debut


ACT I - The airfield outside Peking (Beijing), China
It is a cold, clear, dry morning: Monday, February 21, 1972. Contingents of army, navy, and air force circle the field and sing “The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points of Attention.” Premier Chou En-lai, accompanied by a small group of officials, strolls onto the runway just as the “Spirit of ’76” taxis into view. President Nixon disembarks. They shake hands and the President sings of his excitement and his fears.
An hour later he is meeting with Chairman Mao. Mao’s conversational armory contains philosophical apothegms, unexpected political observations, and gnomic jokes, and everything he sings is amplified by his secretaries and the premier. It is not easy for a Westerner to hold his own in such a dialogue.
     After the audience with Mao, everyone at the first evening’s banquet is euphoric. The President and Mrs. Nixon manage to exchange a few words before Premier Chou rises to make the first of the evening’s toasts, a tribute to patriotic fraternity. The President replies, toasting the Chinese people and the hope of peace. The toasts continue, with less formality, as the night goes on.
Snow has fallen during the night. In the morning, Mrs. Nixon is ushered onstage by her party of guides and journalists. She explains a little of what it feels like for a woman like her to be First Lady and accepts a glass elephant from the workers at the Peking Glass Factory. She visits the Evergreen People’s Commune and the Summer Palace, where she pauses in the Gate of Longevity and Goodwill to sing, “This is prophetic!” Then, on to the Ming Tombs before sunset.
     In the evening, the Nixons attend a performance of The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The ballet entwines ideological rectitude with Hollywood-style emotion. The Nixons respond to the latter; they are drawn to the downtrodden peasant girl—in fact, they are drawn into the action on the side of simple virtue. This was not precisely what Chiang Ch’ing had in mind. She sings “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” ending with full choral backing.
ACT III - The last evening in Peking
The pomp and public displays of the presidential visit are over, and the main players all return to the solitude of their bedrooms. The talk turns to memories of the past. Mao and his wife dance, and the Nixons recall the early days of their marriage during the Second World War, when he was stationed as a naval commander in the Pacific. Chou concludes the opera with the question of whether anything they did was good.
Adapted from a synopsis by Alice Goodman

An Ingenious Operatic Debut

Thomas May

By the time Nixon in China was unveiled at Houston Grand Opera in the fall of 1987, a media feeding frenzy had built up around the event. “I felt like I was pregnant with the royal heir,” John Adams later joked, recalling the anticipatory scrutiny that intensified over the opera’s two-year-long gestation. Even an unstaged try-out of the score, with the singers accompanied only by piano, prompted national press coverage when it was held in San Francisco months before the opening.

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.

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Looking Back on Nixon in China

Thomas May

John Adams himself didn’t fully realize what he had achieved when he first sent Nixon in China into the world in 1987. Not only did it launch his career as an opera composer; Nixon can even be seen to mark the beginning of the renaissance in American opera that continues to blossom today.

John Adams
Photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell

“Beginner’s luck,” Adams says with a chuckle, but the experience profoundly shaped his artistic evolution. While the fresh glance it casts over operatic history comprises part of Nixon’s appeal, it’s also hugely ambitious in terms of the composer’s awareness of the medium’s potential: “one of the magical things about opera is that it is fundamentally unreal, so one can tackle the biggest subjects.”

And the challenges of writing for the stage, Adams points out, have prodded him to advance his musical language: for example, with “the superinflated, pompous, triumphal music I imagined for the presidential landing.” That’s one passage he singles out as among his favorites. Others are the “News” aria, the chorus of toasts closing the first act, and the ambiguous melancholy that ends the opera.

Adams has continued to grapple with very big subjects in his stage works since Nixon: terrorism in The Death of Klinghoffer (the first Adams opera staged by San Francisco opera in 1991) or the dawn of the nuclear age in Doctor Atomic, premiered by the Company in 2005. The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a retelling of the Passion set in “the eternal present,” recently premiered in concert form in Los Angeles and will be fully staged there next year.

Above all, the “fortune” Adams had with his operatic firstborn child was to understand that “a good opera composer needs to be flexible and must learn to make his musical language capable of the slightest shift of mood or psychology on the part of his characters.”

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Program Note About Nixon in China

Alice Goodman

Before Nixon in China was Nixon in China, it was “the opera to be written in rhymed couplets.” Shortly after I acquired a telephone, I received a call from Peter Sellars asking whether I would be interested in writing the libretto for an opera, “in couplets—John Adams says he wants couplets.” I said “Yes,” and put down the telephone. Not long afterwards Peter Sellars rang again to ask what I thought of Nixon in China as a title. I said I thought it was a perfect title but that it had to be a heroic opera. I would not write it as a satire. That, I was informed, was exactly what John Adams had said. And so the matter rested, the form having evoked the title and the title the character of the opera.

A little more than a year later we met in Washington D. C.—almost equidistant from John Adams's home in California and mine in England—to work out the opera’s structure. There were all the back issues of the various news magazines and the tapes of the television newscasts; the beginning of our research. Once it was clear what exactly had happened on each of the six historic days (21–27 February 1972), that the President had met with the Chairman on the first day, that the guards had started smiling on the second, that the Great Wall was viewed on the fourth, and so on, we began to simplify. The opera would have three acts, the first comprising three scenes, the second, two, and the third, one. We gave the characters voices: Mrs. Nixon would be a lyric soprano, and Chiang Ch'ing a coloratura, and Mao's secretaries would have lower voices and sing backup. We discussed the atmosphere of each scene and worked out where the various arias and choruses would go. When I got back to England, I resumed reading, relentlessly ignoring everything published after 1972 except for the Nixon and Kissinger memoirs. Having started out blissfully ignorant, I was not going to become wise after the fact. I read Agnes Smedley's biography of Chu Teh; Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China, The Dream of the Red Chamber, and the richly purple prose of Han Su-yin; the authorized edition of the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung;not to mention his pamphlet on the arts and A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire. I broke my ban on books published after 1972 when I came across We Will Always Remember Premier Chou En-lai (1977), the memorial volume with essays by committees, and Roxane Witke's Comrade Chiang Ch'ing. Odd little biographies of Richard Nixon turned up, written while he was a congressman, or a senator, or vice-president, or wondering if he could possibly make a comeback after losing the California gubernatorial election of 1962. I began to collect translations of Mao's poems. And there was more: books, good, bad, and indifferent, pertinent or ostensibly irrelevant, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, photographs. Certain facts became important: Mao's classical education, the way in which his writing takes the allusions of the Chinese literary pantheon, and its meter, and turns them to its own ends; his admiration of Western philosophy and the heroes of the American Revolution; Nixon's stint in the navy during the war, the fact that he was stationed on various Pacific islands, Mrs. Nixon's letters to him, the poverty of her childhood, and the various rented accommodations of the early years of their marriage; the poverty of Chiang Chi’ing’s childhood; Chou En-lai's insomnia. There was the Long March to be thought about, “one year of almost continuous marching, totaling 6,000 miles,” as Snow succinctly puts it, the epic feat of Mao's revolution—astonishing that it should have taken place as recently as 1935—and the Chinese Communist Party's years in the wilderness in northwest China, and its various internecine feuds before the Second Civil War began in 1946 and ended with the taking of Peking three years later and the exile of Chiang Kai-shek. There were details of the famines of the first half of the century, echoed in the 1950s. And the Cultural Revolution. What can one say about that blood bath on Platonic principles? And having said it, what can one say about the famines and the Long March? I pondered Nixon's love of history and his belief in peace and progress, and I pondered the significance of the characters’ ages: the Nixons, Kissinger and Chiang Ch'ing in late middle age, Mao and Chou, two old men; all with the ambition of their youth either achieved or abandoned. I became more and more certain that every character in the opera should be made as eloquent as possible. Everyone should have a voice. It would be a heroic opera—that would be the character of the work and an opera of character—that had become inevitable and the heroic quality of the work as a whole would be determined by the eloquence of each character in his or her own argument. In February 1985, greatly to everyone’s relief, I wrote the first couplet. I think the last was written in December 1986. During that time, and since, I discovered a fair amount about the nature of collaborative work. Choruses that I loved had to be cut for the greater good, and arias were composed and inserted. We disagreed violently about one thing and another, and while some of these disagreements were resolved, others were amicably maintained. There are places where the music goes against the grain of the libretto, and places where the staging goes against the grain of both. My Nixon is not quite the same character as John Adams's Nixon, and they both differ slightly from Peter Sellars's Nixon, not to mention James Maddalena's [the originator of the role of Richard Nixon]. My view of the Cultural Revolution is not the same as theirs, and theirs are not the same. I suspect we disagree about peace and progress. This collaboration is polyphonic. 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.
This program note, written by Alice Goodman in 1987, appears in the score to Nixon in China.

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Director's Note

Michael Cavanagh

How does art illustrate, reflect, or embellish history, with particular respect to Nixon’s visit to China? How do we, as contemporary audiences, benefit from seeing this particular story told in music?

History knows no resting places and no plateaus. —Henry Kissinger

President and Mrs. Nixon arrive in Beijing, February 21, 1972
Photo: Getty Images

In some respect, every work of art is a documentary. Every painting, sculpture, dance or story offers a peek into another time and place. Indeed, historians often look to a culture’s artistic inventory for insights into the everyday life or epic events of another era. If you want a glimpse of peasant life in Holland in the 1560s, take a look at the paintings of Breugel. Listening to the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky will tell you not just about the defense of Russia against Napoleon, but how the Russian people felt about it. Even abstract work is illustrative of a culture’s quest for (or tolerance of) an alternative point of view. Ask any member of the audience at the riotous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The primary role of an artist, of course, is not to document but to interpret. Historians are condemned for taking liberties; an artist often feels an obligation to do so. Incongruously, this can make an artistic rendition of an event more honest than a so-called factual account. Anyone who recounts for others the events of the past does so with an opinion, no matter how objective or dispassionate they attempt to be. In Nixon in China, John Adams and Alice Goodman make no such attempt. They’re unapologetically interpretive in their approach, so the audience needn’t be on guard for a hidden agenda. Their aim is to access the private, inner voices of the people involved, not just their public ones. Thus their retelling of this historic voyage can be taken at face—and voice—value. It is not trying to be a pure reflection of the events of those epic days but a refraction of them. Each member of the storytelling team— librettist, composer, director, designers, performers, and conductor— act like prisms, splitting the “truth” into impressionistic shards.

We shouldn’t think of a piece like Nixon in China as a window to another time, but as a kaleidoscope. Each member of our audience will see and hear these colors in their own way and reassemble from them their own personalized impressions. As such it becomes an invaluable contribution to the written (or sung) record of history. It’s more than just a documentation of historic events, it’s an examination of how we all might interpret them.

Photo by Cory Weaver/ Courtesy Lyric Opera of Kansas City

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David Gockley Reflects on Nixon in China

Robert Wilder Blue

Of the many new works David Gockley has been responsible for bringing to the stage, none are as highly regarded as John Adams’ Nixon in China. Recently, Gockley reminisced about the genesis of Nixon, which had its world premiere twenty-five years ago.

David Gockley
Photo by Terrence McCarthy

We were planning the fall 1987 opening of the Wortham Center, Houston’s new opera house. Aida (with Freni and Domingo) would be the marquee offering, and Abduction from the Seraglio was chosen as well. I also was looking for a contrasting piece, perhaps a premiere. Simultaneously, I was pursuing the wunderkind director Peter Sellars for a production, and he proposed an opera based on Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 trip to China. I remember responding, “Are you joking?” But the twinkle in his eye told me he was serious. As is typical of him, Peter was more than a director. He brought the composer and librettist together for the first time, and he was intimately involved with the casting. When I heard the score for the first time—in a reading presented at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco—I realized what we had. It was a stunning, break-out score by the man who would emerge as the greatest composer of his generation. We were home free. I found myself sitting four seats away from then-SFO General Director Terry McEwen, who had been invited to the reading to generate his interest in the opera. As the reading concluded, he exclaimed, “over my dead body.” Peter’s vision was so intense that he willed it into existence. He, John, and Alice have bequeathed us a piece that not only stands on its own, but has given hope to the entire American operatic scene. It is a genuine thrill to once again be involved with this masterpiece.

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The Toast Viewed Round the World

Michael Bauer

When President Richard Nixon lifted his glass and took a sip of the pungent Chinese spirit maotai—which Max Frankel, covering the event for The New York Times, described as “pure gasoline”—it ignited a renewed fascination with Chinese culture in America.

Photo: Getty Images

On February 21, 1972 President Nixon arrived in the Chinese capital and was honored that evening at a banquet for 800 guests, given by Premier Chou En-lai at the Great Hall of the People. The toast, broadcast around the world, provided a visual affirmation of the thaw in the twenty-three-year freeze of Chinese-American relations.

After that initial toast Nixon, who was reportedly adept at the use of chopsticks, sat down to spongy bamboo shoots and egg-white consommé; shark’s fin in three shreds; fried and stewed prawns, not typical in Beijing but the Chinese heard Americans like shrimp; mushrooms and mustard greens; steamed chicken with coconut; and almond junket, along with hors d’oeuvre, pastries, and fruit. The nine-course menu is tame when viewed through the lens of 2012, but it was a world apart from the crab rangoon, chop suey, and sweet-and-sour pork that had defined Chinese food in America.

Since the California Gold rush, San Francisco has nurtured a love affair with Chinese culture. opening in 1849, Macao & Woosung on the corner of Kearny and Commercial became the first Chinese restaurant in the U.S., and today we have the largest Chinatown outside Asia. Through this trip Americans were introduced to the spicier Sichuan and Hunan cuisines, rather than the more familiar Cantonese. Once the leaders sat down to dinner, they began to see each other more as human beings than enemies. As James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

Michael Bauer is the executive food and wine editor and restaurantcritic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The official menu of the banquet
Photo courtesy National Archives

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Madame Mao and the Red Detachment of Women

Ken Smith

In 1972 it looked like a pleasant, if perplexing, diversion, but the significance of the ballet Red Detachment of Women being performed during President Nixon’s historic trip to China took years to unfold. Chiang Ch’ing, the formidable wife of Mao Tse-tung, was not merely playing hostess for a visiting head of state. Rather, she was introducing her pet cultural project to the outside world.

Lobby poster for the 1970 movie of the ballet The Red Detachment of Women

Few works of art have become so emblematic of a single presence, yet Chiang was technically neither creator nor director. Nor was she even an impresaria, as we in the West think of the term. Her connection to the piece was a singular fusion of her forceful personality with the political currents of the time. During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the performing arts had arguably become Mao’s most significant battleground. Chiang Ch’ing was his field commander.

That the arts held a key position in Mao’s China is beyond question. The Cultural Revolution in fact erupted over a Chinese opera that drew a clear analogy between a Ming Dynasty official’s fall from grace after defending the peasants against an oppressive emperor and a deposed Communist Party official who had criticized Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In retrospect, the seeds of the Cultural Revolution’s decade-long campaign had been planted back in 1942 with Mao’s seminal talks at the Yan’an Conference on literature and art, where Mao (quoting Lenin) described the arts as “cogs and screws” in the revolutionary machine, to be produced by “cultural workers” carefully supervised by the Communist Party. Independent thought or expression was to be discouraged, by any means necessary.
The eventual prominence of Chiang, Mao’s fourth wife, was less foreseeable. A former theater and film actress in 1930s Shanghai, Chiang represented everything the Communists claimed to detest. Though a convert to the Communist cause, her seduction of and eventual marriage to Mao caused her to be dismissed by the rest of the Communist establishment as a political gold digger out to erase her decadent past.

Although she later gained impeccable Party credentials, serving as director of film in the Central Propaganda Department in the 1950s, Chiang read the political currents of the early ’60s and made a considerably grander bid for power. Mao had long complained that the key character-types of traditional lyric theater—fierce generals, handsome scholars, virtuous beauties—were so far removed from China’s peasant masses as to be irrelevant. Foreign culture, too, was by definition decadent and to be avoided at all costs. From 1964, when she spoke at a festival of Peking opera based on modern themes, Chiang’s pronouncements became increasingly strident.

Decrees soon became hands-on policy, and Chiang’s primary cultural legacy became her initiatives in theatrical reform. Refining Mao’s seminal judgments into a codified revolutionary aesthetic, she not only developed eight model works but also effectively banned other pieces. Her eight works—“models” not just for other works of revolutionary art but for the people to emulate in daily life—included two ballets, five operas, and one symphonic piece. Far and away the most successful of these has been Red Detachment.

In its themes, sources, and subsequent distribution, Red Detachment provides a striking specimen of Chiang’s working style. First of all, the story was hardly original, having been a popular 1961 feature film. The cinematic narrative was condensed and refocused on the female guerilla fighters, then reconceived in terms of dance by the China Central Ballet. Scores of writers, directors, musicians, composers, choreographers and designers were put to work—their anonymity in the finished product sweetened somewhat by being offered resources and working conditions far exceeding the standards of the day.

Helped in part by the 1970 film of the ballet, Red Detachment captured and lingered in the public consciousness longer than other works of the period. It brought together two of Mao’s most prominent themes—the color red in symbolizing revolution, and that revolution’s role in empowering women (a dramatic embodiment of Mao’s claim that “Women hold up half the sky”). It remains, by most non-ideological standards, the smoothest blend of Maoist ideology with a Western art form.

The forceful iconography of the show’s visual design has enabled its lingering popularity. Paradoxically for a show that consciously played down romantic and sexual elements, pictures of the ballet heroines leaping in red pajamas became the source of some rather non-revolutionary male fantasies. (“Those posters were our Playboy magazines,” the Beijing-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long recalls.) Like much Cultural Revolution art, Red Detachment dispenses a wealth of cultural symbols with all the calculated simplicity—if none of the intent—of Norman Rockwell.

Even after Chiang Ch’ing’s dramatic fall from grace, beginning with Mao’s death in 1976 and ending with her apparent prison suicide in 1991, Red Detachment has remained popular as a “red classic.” A 1996 revival of the ballet in Beijing received ovations from the moment the overture was completed. When the National Centre for the Performing Arts opened in Beijing in 2007, honors for the inaugural performance went to the National Ballet of China and the fighting women of Red Detachment.

Little wonder then, that Red Detachment remains malleable enough to surface in a late twentieth-century opera about the meeting of Nixon and Mao. At some point, any work of art takes on a life of its own. And as circumstances change, that life will most likely be a world away from any context its creators could have imagined.

Ken Smith divides his time between New York, where he writes for Gramophone magazine, and Hong Kong, where he serves as the Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times. His books include Fate! Luck! Chance! Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace and the Making of The Bonesetter’s Daughter Opera.

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A Selected Timeline of U.S.–Chinese Relations

Joanna C. Lee

An overview of important dates in the relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China in the last six decades.


October 1, 1949: Founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). U.S. backs Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek during WWII and civil war that followed; continued to support Chiang’s government in Taiwan.

June 25, 1950: Korean War begins. China and U.S. support opposing forces of North and South Korea

June 1, 1966: PRC’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, publishes editorial “uncovering” reactionary bourgeois elements in society with caption “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons.” This date is often identified as the beginning of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution

April 10, 1971: U.S. table tennis team becomes first American sports delegation to set foot in China since 1949

July 9, 1971: On a secret trip to China, Henry Kissinger meets with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai

July 15, 1971: U.S. and Chinese governments announce that President Nixon intends to visit China

October 20­–26, 1971: Kissinger and entourage meet with Zhou at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People

February 21–28, 1972: The historic trip in China coined by Nixon as “the week that changed the world.”

January 8, 1976: Chou En-lai dies at 77

September 9, 1976: Mao Tse-tung’s death (at age 84) announced

October 6, 1976: Four leading Communist party officials, led by Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) and known as the Gang of Four, taken into custody

January 1, 1979: U.S. and China issue joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relationships between the two countries

January 29–February 4, 1979: Deng Xiaoping visits U.S., the first leader since the founding of PRC to arrive on American soil

November 23–December 29, 1980: Gang of Four trials

January 25, 1981: Chiang Ch’ing sentenced to death with two-year reprieve and permanent deprivation of political rights; death sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1983

April 26–30, 1984: President Reagan visits China

February 25–26, 1989: President G.H.W. Bush visits China

June 5, 1989: U.S. imposes “sanctions” on China after Tiananmen Square protests, leading to a low point in bilateral relations

May 14, 1991: Chiang Ch’ing hangs herself at 77

June 22, 1993: Pat Nixon dies at 81

April 22, 1994: Richard Nixon dies at 81

Musicologist Joanna C. Lee is the co-author of The Pocket Chinese Almanac and co-director, with her husband Ken Smith, of Museworks Ltd.—a Hong Kong-based cultural consulting company offering wide-ranging support, from production to translation and media services, for artists and institutions seeking links to and from Asia.

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"Superlative 'Nixon in China'...Dazzled and Entertained!"

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Suave, Imaginative and Superbly Sung!"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"'Nixon' has finally, splendidly arrived!"

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"'Nixon' has taken its rightful place as one of the great operas of the latter part of the 20th century!"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Baritone Brian Mulligan was a vivid, strong-toned Nixon."

"Tenor Simon O'Neill brought clarion power and fearless bravado to the role of Mao, and soprano Maria Kanyova was a winningly lyrical Pat. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan endowed the role of Chou En-Lai with alluring warmth and humanity, and Patrick Carfizzi was a suitably cartoonish Kissinger.

"The evening's most dazzling performance came from soprano Hye Jung Lee, just two years out of the Merola Opera Program, in a career-making triumph as Madame Mao. With its aggressive, almost shrieky high notes and sinewy vocal leaps, this is music that is designed to be practically unsingable—a Queen of the Night for the 20th century—and yet Lee made it seem technically easy, and gave it a fierce, gleaming beauty as well.”

"The Opera Orchestra played with steely luster throughout, and Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus, embodying the Chinese masses, sang with communal brilliance."

"Director Michael Cavanagh's production...captures the work's sense of pageantry in a series of artfully composed tableaux."

"Erhard Rom's suggestive sets interact in dexterous and often thrilling ways with the projections of Sean Nieuwenhuis—never more so than in the moments when Air Force One seems to fill the War Memorial stage."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Thunderous applause" for John Adams.
"What continues to amaze is the inventiveness with which Adams forged a wholly new operatic language in this score."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"It is the score by Adams that towers over all of it."
"For 2 1/2 hours, the score is multigeared, multicolored, transforming like a kaleidoscopic engine. It spins through Philip Glass-inspired minimalism and touches on big band swing, Glenn Miller serenades, grinding rhythm and blues and Beethovenian weather."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Triumph, Color and Exhilaration."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"A Musical and Theatrical Masterpiece!"
"Strongly cast, beautifully played, and presented in a handsome and effective production...the opening performance affirmed Nixon's standing as a musical and theatrical masterpiece and one of the great operas of the 20th century."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice


  • Fri 06/8/12 8:00pm

  • Thu 06/14/12 7:30pm *

  • Sun 06/17/12 2:00pm *

  • Fri 06/22/12 8:00pm

  • Tue 06/26/12 8:00pm *

  • Sat 06/30/12 8:00pm

  • Tue 07/3/12 7:30pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


This production is made possible, in part, by Roberta and David Elliott and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional support provided by the Fleishhacker Foundation.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.