History in the Making

John Adams’s Nixon in China is undoubtedly one of the most important operas written in the second half of the 20th century. During the 2010–11 season, the groundbreaking work had its long-awaited Met premiere, directed by the legendary Peter Sellars and conducted by its composer. By Thomas May

The world premiere of Nixon in China in October 1987 inaugurated a fresh era in American opera. The piece boldly carved out new territory by treating recent American history as suitably mythic operatic material. Skeptics thought that this could result only in a trendily pop art-style ridicule of well-known political icons, but it turned out to be as valid a choice as Wagner’s dysfunctional gods or the tormented passions of verismo lovers. Years after the opera’s initial run at the Houston Grand Opera, Nixon is now recognized as a 20th-century masterpiece.

Though rooted in a familiar moment in history—President Nixon’s unprecedented visit to China in February 1972—Nixon in China uses this specific event and the personalities associated with it as a launching pad to reflect on universal themes: the tension between idealism and pragmatism, between the public selves we present and our inner lives, and even between the nitty-gritty of history and our tendency to mythologize. Nixon’s enduring musical and theatrical richness—three decades after the end of the Cold War—now underscores its position as the harbinger of a renaissance in American opera. Following Adams’s successful Met introduction with Doctor Atomic in 2008, Nixon in China, with a libretto by Alice Goodman, at last made its landing on the company’s stage in 2011, in a refined version (first seen at English National Opera) of the original production, with sets by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Dunya Ramicova, and choreog- raphy by Mark Morris. Peter Sellars once again directed (in his Met debut), and James Maddalena reprised his definitive portrayal of the title role, which he created at the opera’s premiere. Adams took to the Met podium for the first time.

If Richard and Pat Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung, Chiang Ch’ing (“Madame Mao”), Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger seemed unlikely candidates for operatic heroes, the fact that Nixon even came to be written truly defied the odds. The seed was first planted by the energetic Sellars. Still in his twenties but already known as an enfant terrible of the stage, Sellars met John Adams in 1983 at a music festival in the composer’s native New England. Adams, ten years his senior, had previously written choral music but nothing for solo voice. But Sellars recalls that Adams’s music captivated him with its “sweeps of tension and release, and then adrenaline-inspired visionary states. That is absolutely what you hope for in the theater.”

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As soon as they met, Sellars pitched the still-vague idea of an opera about the historic 1972 Sino-American summit. He had already chosen the title “Nixon in China,” with its playful allusion to such operatic forbears as Ariadne auf Naxos and Iphigénie en Tauride. Adams at first assumed the topic offered little more than an excuse for some preposterous satire of a figure who had been his “bogey- man” during the Vietnam War. Yet the suggestion percolated, and a year later, Adams recalls, “I realized it was a perfect idea for an opera.”

So what led Adams to abandon his initial skepticism and see Nixon’s China visit as a viable subject for American opera? On one level, he points out, the meeting represents “a mythological moment in American history, when there was a Clash of the Titans between these two figures who stood for the market economy and the Socialist/Communist doctrine.” Historical developments since the Cold War have added an unanticipated layer of irony—in terms of East-West relations overall and China’s embrace of “hectic capitalist” growth—yet Nixon remains emblematic, Adams says, of a basic pattern of projecting both our paranoia and our idealism onto political leaders.

Things fell quickly into place when Sellars invited Goodman, whose poetry he had admired while they were classmates at Harvard, to join in as librettist. Goodman (who would later write the libretto for Adams’s second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer) transforms the solidly workmanlike format of rhymed couplets (often resorting to slightly “off” slant rhyme: as in “dark”/“work” or “grace”/“grass”) into a wonderfully versatile tool that is oracular one moment, disarmingly homespun the next. More than three decades later, Adams and Sellars (whose own collaboration has been remarkably long-lived) remain awed by the quality of Goodman’s debut libretto, which they both regard as a masterpiece.

Together, the three artists immersed themselves in a mountain of source material—media coverage of the visit, political memoirs, Chinese philosophy and history, Communist propaganda—which they boiled down into a streamlined storyline tracing the basic outlines of the historical encounter. The first act includes the presidential landing in Beijing and an enigmatic meeting with Chairman Mao (sung by Robert Brubaker and backed by a trio of singers who were dubbed the “Maoettes” in the first production) and climaxes with an escalating series of public toasts between the Americans and Chinese. The women come to the fore in the second act, which starts with Pat Nixon, played by Janis Kelly, on an official tour of Chinese sites. In stark contrast to the First Lady’s lady-like deportment, the formidable Madame Mao (Kathleen Kim) presides over the evening’s entertainment, the ballet The Red Detachment of Women—a lurid emblem of the violent Cultural Revolution. The third act is the most unconventional in structure and tone. Here the opera takes a remarkable turn inward, as the main characters begin to face their own mortality, and reflect—in intimate dialogues and monologues—on their respective pasts with an increasingly elegiac sense of regret.

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What clearly attracted Adams to the Nixon material—along with its archetypal aspects—was his grasp of its manifold musical possibilities. He began by imagining a musical profile for Nixon that drew on the quintessential American sound of white big-band music from the 1930s and 40s and nostalgic echoes of the swing era to evoke his early years with Pat. The mix of brass and saxophones makes for what Adams calls a “burly” orchestral sound, which he can also power up to convey the magnificence of American technology in the presidential landing or the “automaton”-like terror of the Cultural Revolution in Madame Mao’s big scene in Act II.

The score meanwhile embeds a rich history of opera in its approach to voice types. In contrast to Pat’s plaintive soubrette, Madame Mao is a sinister coloratura, a Little Red Book-thumping Queen of the Night. Adams alludes to Verdi’s conflicted, self-doubting ruler/father figures in both of his big baritone roles (Nixon and Chou En-lai), while Mao’s punishingly high tessitura has the frail leader ironically projecting the image of a revolutionary heldentenor. Adams deftly weaves allusions to Rossini’s drinking finales, Wagnerian storms, and Communist “art-by-committee” together with American vernacular elements (from foxtrots to Jerry Lee Lewis), yet Nixon unfolds as far more than witty pastiche.

The encounter between Nixon and Mao suggested an inherently operatic treatment. “Opera in itself is a media event,” says Adams, “only the media involved are the orchestra and the voice and what goes on stage. So this is a media event about a media event.” The first act, for example, is characterized by “an over-caffeinated sort of hyper-anxiety and nervousness—the percussive excitement of a presidential summit meeting.” A perfect illustration of this occurs in perhaps the most famous moment of the score: After the “musical exhaust” of the presidential landing (as Sellars memorably terms it), Nixon sings his first aria (“News has a kind of mystery”), obsessively repeating the word “news” 12 times in a rapid, restless staccato.

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As the glare of the cameras gradually dies down, however, a new kind of self-consciousness sets in: In private, the leading characters wonder what has really been accomplished. The shift in tone calls for a very different kind of music—what Adams refers to as the “nocturnal reverie” of the last act and Sellars calls “musical twilight.” For all its raw, hammering, woozy excitement, Nixon’s score outlines a subtle large-scale decrescendo that ends with a melancholy question mark (a gentle, retrospective echo of the prelude’s rising phrases). In fact, Adams has prepared for this all along—in the suddenly dark, introspective turn the “News” aria takes, for example, or in the visionary grace of Pat’s act-two aria, “This Is Prophetic.” For all its ironic play with public poses—a vein the composer himself sometimes refers to as his “trickster” side—Nixon in China touches a serious, genuine core.

Audiences at the world premiere who were expecting a predictable, politically correct satire were surprised—the last thing Nixon in China represents is something “torn from the headlines.” As Sellars explains, “The odd thing is, it takes poetry, music, and dance to give back to our own history its actual dimensionality. What opera can do to history is deepen it and move into its more subtle, nuanced, and mysterious corners.”