My musical interests are perverse enough that when I heard about the existence of a grand opera surrounding the 1972 diplomatic visit by then-President Richard Nixon to the People's Republic of China, I was immediately intrigued.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for the music writers of the world when John Adams' work finally premiered at the Houston Opera in 1987. I would hope that a similarly perverse curiosity piqued their interest, fascinated by how the people behind the project—theater director Peter Sellars, composer John Adams, and librettist Alice Goodman—would pull it off.
Sellars was already known in the theater and opera community for his challenging stagings of famous works. During the '80s, he had overseen productions of Mozart operas that were removed from their original settings and placed in contemporary society. Don Giovanni was transplanted to Spanish Harlem, with costumes straight out of a '70s Blaxploitation film, and the most famous aria in it is performed while the singer simulates shooting heroin.i
Adams, too, had spent much of his musical career pushing against the notion of -- as he said in his notes for his 1985 Schoenberg inspired piece, Harmonielehre -- "the composer [as] a god of sorts, to which the listener would come as if to a sacramental altar." ii With that motivation, Adams created some amazing work that evoked the high priests of minimalism (Steve Reich, Philip Glass) and the avant garde, while paying heed to the symphonic tradition. To see what I mean, check out his bracing 1986 piece, "Short Ride In A Fast Machine"iii, an orchestral work that uses a rapid-fire pulse intertwined among the players of a concert symphony to simulate the feeling of a joyous highway drive or a speedboat run.
The person who took the most risks by taking on this project is Goodman, though perhaps not as much of a risk as when she worked again with Adams and Sellars on the 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which was set amid the hijacking of the cruise ship, the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists.iv Still, the poet's first foray into opera was a huge leap of faith on part of her collaborators. At the time of her artistic conscription, she was a broke student living in England. Sellars had worked with Goodman before at Harvard, which, as he told the Associated Press earlier this year, provided him with "a hunch that this woman was capable of great things." v
Like most of Sellars' most daring artistic leaps of faith, it paid off masterfully. Goodman's meticulously researched libretto for Nixon In China was, to quote Alex Ross from his book, The Rest Is Noise, vi "an epic poem of recent history, a dream narrative in half-rhyming heroic couplets." In it, she weaves in lines from Nixon's memoirs and interviews, pieces of Mao Zedong's poetry, and other direct quotes from the historical record.
I emphasize the above because, like Goodman told AP, to some people, "the fact that it wasn't going to be a satire was unthinkable." I was one of those people. THis is simply because when I first heard about the opera, it was in the context of other operas that been produced by Richard Thomas on the lives/work of tabloid figures like Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith. And at the time, I had only appreciated classical music and opera from afar, as background music or something that helped assert just how "different" I was.
A couple of years ago, I decided to start exploring genres of music that I knew little or nothing about, starting with classical. And while I did my damnedest to understand and appreciate the centuries old works by composers like Mozart, Saint-Saens, and Rossini, it was the more modern material from the 20th century forward that most readily scratched my itch for understanding. But I did lean further into operas, old and new, because, simply, there was a storyline for me to latch on to --tales that were aided and emphasized by their accompanying music.
This was how I stumbled into the world of John Adams. Not through Nixon In China, but his 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, a musical rendering of the first tests of the atomic bomb, centering on J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was a work that didn't attempt to mirror the mood and sounds of classic operas. The structure was intact — two or three acts, an overture, arias, choral pieces — but it pushed against that framework with every note. Moments like bass-baritone Gerard Finley's stirring solo that ends the first act of Atomic, vii which uses a sonnet from John Donne to speak of Oppenheimer's inner turmoil with the terrifying potential of what he had created, left me reeling.
Nixon In China only deepened my appreciation. The film of the Houston Opera premier that Network Awesome is featuring this week, as well as the performance of the Metropolitan Opera revival that I caught earlier this year when it was broadcast to movie theaters, showcase how easily Adams and Goodman adapted themselves to the operatic form and what great fun they must have had playing around with it.
This is no comic opera, however. There are moments of lunatic glee, like the staging of The Red Detachment of Women within the opera that features a Henry Kissinger lookalike that pokes fun at the former National Security Advisor's penchant for female companionship.
What the rest of the opera does is find the epic qualities inherent in this rather dramatic move by the Nixon administration to open its proverbial doors to China. If not for the Watergate scandal, this could have been the defining moment of Nixon's presidency. These were two world superpowers looking each other in the eyes for the first time and sniffing around one another in an attempt to find either common ground or at least some sort of understanding of one another's actions and intentions.
Adams and Goodman emphasize the self-awareness of each party involved. The aria that closes the first act finds Nixon proudly proclaiming that he was making history, comparing it to the Apollo moon landing, while also allowing his paranoia to creep in ("The rats begin to chew the sheets..."). And in the aria sung by Mao Zedong's wife Chiang Ch'ing at the end of Act II, she shrilly glorifies her own part in the cultural upheaval of China.
Knowing the eventual downfall of the major figures involved—Nixon's impeachment, the deaths (only months apart) of Mao and his key advisor Chou En-Lai, and the 1980 trial of Chiang Ch'ing for her role in the deaths of thousands of Chinese citizens—only deepens the ironic sting of Nixon In China and adds to its ample power.
vi Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2007.