Nixon in China

John Adams

Nixon in China

About this work

The brainchild of famed director Peter Sellars, and first performed in 1987, Nixon in China remains one of John Adams' best-known compositions. Like works by Philip Glass and others, it represents an attempt to reconcile the theatrical demands of opera with the seemingly incompatible musical language of minimalism. The resulting work, rich in subtext and color, caused quite a stir at the time of its premiere. Looking back, it seems clear that the resurgence of interest in new opera seen in the late '80s and early '90s can be partially attributed to the success of Nixon in China.

The opera is based on Richard Nixon's famous visit to communist China in 1972. President Nixon and his wife, Pat, were the first official American visitors to the People's Republic since Mao Tse-tung's communist takeover in 1949. The visit, which yielded no immediate political gains, nevertheless was a first step in the re-establishment of formal diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Alice Goodman's libretto, written entirely in rhymed couplets, is tightly focused on the main characters: Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, Chou En-lai, Mao Tse-tung, and Chiang Ch'ing (Mao's fourth wife). A smaller though not insignificant role is given to Henry Kissinger, who accompanied the Nixons on their historic visit. The differences among the main characters -- particularly Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Chairman Mao -- emerge as the dramatic emphasis of the piece, creating a picture of each as both a person and a public figure. The work is decidedly sympathetic to the Chinese, who display the greater breadth of thought and understanding. Pat Nixon also emerges as a very personable and sensitive heroine. Nixon himself comes off as a self-conscious, but effective, statesman -- perhaps an attempt at historical accuracy. Adams' music, especially his skillful text setting and use of orchestral colors, adapts easily to the requirements of Goodman's characters. Each person "speaks" with his/her own melodic contour (especially Nixon, whose stilted delivery remains clichéd) and occupies a unique musical sphere, in much the same way as characters are associated with leitmotifs in the operas of Wagner.

The large-scale architecture of scenes, and of the piece as a whole, succeeds in creating a complete picture of the historic visit, as well as the effect of that visit on the main characters. Perhaps the opera's biggest handicap is that Adams' musical vocabulary of the time -- slow in harmonic rhythm and highly repetitive -- limits the possibilities for realistic action and expression. Everything seems to happen in slow motion, and characters are forced to engage in passages of self-explanation -- announcing their worldviews and feelings instead of being allowed to interact naturally. On the other hand, the subject matter brings with it a measure of formality, and Adams' music magnifies that quality without ever becoming stuffy.