Below are some quotes from recent articles about John Adams' opera Nixon in China, and the Peter Sellars production that is having its belated Met debut (24 years after it premiered to widespread acclaim and notoriety). Check it out this weekend Live in HD from the Met at Virginia Western Community College.
At the bottom is (my personalized) shorthand outline on Adams' musical style, with a brief listening guide to Nixon.
Articles & features about Nixon in China on the Met website: metopera.org
Nixon in China tells of the groundbreaking visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon to Communist China in February 1972, during which he met with Party Chairman Mao Zedong (spelled Tse-tung in the opera) and other Chinese leaders, flinging wide the long-closed doors between the U.S. and China. This event inspired Adams to write his first opera: “part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues,” as he described it. [Met Educator Guides]
The Myth of History (from Adams & Sellars):
What made the project perfect?
JA As Americans, we’re obsessed with our president because that person embodies our national psyche, both the dark side—our paranoia and our tendency to abuse power—but also our idealism and our curiously American optimism…
People have forgotten what a shock it was to see Nixon and Mao together, shaking hands and chatting it up. After all, China was supposed to be the dark evil empire—I remember how the Cold War image of Mao was burned into our consciousness here in the U.S. So Nixon’s trip quickly became a kind of mythological moment—I think of it as a clash of ideologies.
Why do you object to people labeling Nixon a “CNN opera”?
PS I really want to emphasize that it’s exactly the opposite. CNN is fast-breaking, with instant reactions, and of course the rush to judgment. Opera is about a long view. What opera offers is poetry, is music. Alice Goodman has taken these historical events and transformed them not into headlines, which reduce and simplify, but into poetry, which expands and complexifies [sic].
on the distinctive vocal writing for each character:
JA It seemed obvious that Nixon’s music would be white, big band music from the ’30s and early ’40s, which is, of course, when Dick and Pat fell in love. Pat is the complete antipode of Chiang Ch’ing. I wanted her to be not just a shrieking coloratura, but also someone who in the opera’s final act can reveal her private fantasies, her erotic desires, and even a certain tragic awareness. Nixon himself is a sort of Simon Boccanegra—a self-doubting, lyrical, at times self-pitying melancholy baritone. Mao is the Mao of the huge posters and Great Leap Forward. I cast him as a heldentenor. [cf: Mozart & Wagner parallels…]
Political Spouses: A Study in Contrasts between Two Characters
JA Both wives of politicians, they represented the yin and the yang of the two alternatives to living with someone immersed in power and political manipulation. Pat was…the quintessence of ‘family values,’ a woman who stood by her man (preferably a foot or two in the background), embraced his causes and wore a gracious if stoic smile through a long career…. Chiang Ch’ing began her career as a movie actress and only later enlisted in the Party and…ultimately became the power behind his throne, the mind and force behind that hideous experiment in social engineering, the Cultural Revolution.
Madame Mao: I am the wife of Mai Tse-tung
Who raised the weak above the strong
When I appear the people hang
Upon my words, and for his sake
Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck
I speak according to the book.
Adams (and others) on Adams:
--1947 (Worcester, Mass); Harvard; twice Schoenberg’s “grandson:” studied with Leon Kirchner, then disciple of John Cage;
moved to SF Bay area in 70’s [East Coast/West Coast] “2nd gen. minimalist” BUT w/ “non-modernist expressivity;”
polymath of styles & inspirations (pan-Euro, -Mid/Far-East; poetry & philo/religion; myth/history/dreams…)
YET North American through & through; a "melting pot" of styles/influences:
*Americana style of Ives/Copland
*American Experimental/fringe school (also includes Ives) embodied in "loner"/"outsider" artists from Thoreau to Cage
*Minimalist style; a "less is more" aesthetic full of vibrant energy/pulse, musical Dada "thumbing of the nose at the establishment..."
“My operas have dealt on deep psychological levels with our American mythology…” and finding “mythic potential of contemporary icons.”
“I’m not interested in lecturing my audience….what appeals to me is their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time”
“You use poetry, you use music, you use gesture to radiate out from that span…”
“One of the glories of opera is its capacity to show us, from without and within, the process of characters coming to terms with experience beyond their control. Through the intensity of all its components, opera makes this process…vivid.” [TM on Dr A]
Peter Sellars on Adams/Nixon/Opera:
“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” (quoted in Thomas May)
“…music and poetry evoke a set of free associations (a set that can’t be censored)” [Dr Atomic]
“We’re on earth to try to figure out how to cross over. And opera is a quintessential art form of crossing over, which is why I think Nixon was so compelling, and why so many things in the history of opera are about that kind of border crossing of imagination, which is so rich” (Opera News)
[Adams & Glass] both represented a break-through in opera history—they made opera a living art form again…the resurgence was very profound, in part because what we brought was subject matter. Opera became about something, about figures that our generation could recognize and deal with, b/c we grew up with them…we inherited their political structures & their aspirations.”
Adams music is like “multi-paneled altarpieces that you cannot possible take in all at once” (re: El Niño)
On the expectation of spectacle [ie “the bomb” in Dr Atomic]:
“The Greeks were not interested in what an exploding eyeball looks like; when Oedipus tears out his eyeballs, they were interested in ‘why would this person tear out his eyes?!?’”
Listening Guide: [big, brassy orchestra, 40’s swing band w/saxophones, etc]
Adams style: Janus-faced; Yin/Yang; manic & melancholy, antic & tragic
“trickster” side of restless, energetic “public” surface (minimalist, “pop”);
serious, lyrical, introspective, poetic/psychological/metaphysical depth…
style=color field paintings/abstract expressionist; (abstract rhythm; expressionist/impressionist harmony/line)
techniques=moto perpetuo, heterophony/layerings, orchestral "jabs" of staccato chords
1. Opening Chorus: “The People are the heroes now”
--minimalist (=Glass); repetitive/obsessive; hypnotic/narcotic/numbing;
2. a. Landing of the Spirit of '76 (orchestra interlude)
--huge orchestral "engine" of sound, energetic pulse, and form that
fits the content (ie: this music sounds like an airplane in flight...)
Premier Chou greets Nixon: “Your flight was smooth, I hope?”
--stylistic/character contrasts (note Nixon’s parody of Americana…)
b. Nixon’s first aria: “News” (repeated 12X!!!);
complex baritone role=Verdi/Wagner
3. Pat’s Act II aria: “This is prophetic”
lyric soprano (=sympathetic heroine; Pamina, Gilda, et al)
4. Madame Mao’s Act II aria: “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung!”
--parody/irony; operatic type: “shrieking coloratura”=Queen of Night
5. The parody-ballet: “The Red Detachment of Women”
“a lurid emblem of the Cultural Revolution” (Mays)
Young as we are / We expect fear / Every year
More of us bow / Beneath the shadow
6. Act III: “the most extended ensemble in all of opera” (PS)
inward action; monologues & conversations;
all reflecting “an increasingly elegiac sense of regret” (Mays);
“nocturnal reverie” (JA);
“musical twilight” (PS)
The third act of Nixon in China is my favorite act of contemporary opera since Benjamin Britten's last essay in the genre (in 1973; he died in '76). Nixon's finale is memorably poignant, and powerful in part because so unexpected (this was the original "CNN Opera"). John Adams is a composer full of surprises. And that is an underrated virtue in the worlds of "art appreciation." We could all use a little newness every now and then: a new spark, a new perspective or stock-taking, a re-newed sense of purpose, or just "a new lease on life." Riffing on a word (like "new") echoes the amplifying capacities inherent in any concentrated form (minimalism being one example). John Adams concentrates his considerate compositional gifts and skills into music that is exceptionally well-crafted, pulsing with energy and coursing with life. It is music full of pleasant, unexpected, (sometimes unsettling but always engaging!) surprises.