The opera takes place in February, 1972, in and around Peking.
At Peking Airport, contingents of the Chinese military await the arrival of the American presidential aircraft "Spirit of '76", carrying President Nixon and his party. The military chorus sings the "Three rules of Discipline and eight Points for Attention." After the aircraft lands, Nixon, his wife Pat, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger emerge. The president and the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai, exchange awkward greetings. Nixon speaks of the historical importance of the visit and his hopes and fears for the encounter: "News has a kind of mystery."
The scene shifts to Chairman Mao's study, where the chairman awaits the arrival of the presidential party. Nixon and Kissinger enter with Chou, and Mao and the president engage in banalities as photographers record the scene. In the discussion that follows, the westerners are confused by Mao's gnomic (short, pithy maxim) and frequently impenetrable comments, which are amplified by both his secretaries and by Chou.
The scene changes again, this time to the evening's banquet in the Great Hall of the People. Chou toasts the American visitors: "We have begun to celebrate the different ways", and Nixon responds: "I have attended many feasts"). The toasts continue as the atmosphere becomes increasingly convivial. Nixon, who rose to prominence on an anti-Communist platform, announces: "Everyone, listen; just let me say one thing. I opposed China, I was wrong."
Pat Nixon tours the city with guides. Factory workers present her with a small model elephant, which she delightedly informs them, is the symbol of the Republican Party, which her husband leads. She visits a commune and is greeted enthusiastically. Captivated by the children's games that she observes in the school, she sings: "I used to be a teacher many years ago, and now I'm here to learn from you." She proceeds to the Summer Palace, where in a contemplative aria, she envisages a peaceful future for the world: "This is prophetic."
(Act II continued)
In the evening, the presidential party, guests of Mao's wife Chiang Ch'ing, attends the Peking Opera for a performance of a political ballet-opera called The Red Detachment of Women. The work depicts the downfall of a cruel and unscrupulous landlord's agent at the hands of brave women revolutionary workers. The actor who plays the landlord strongly resembles Kissinger. The Nixons are deeply moved by the performance. At one point Pat rushes onstage to help a peasant girl whom she thinks is being whipped to death. As the stage action ends, Chiang Ch'ing, angry at the apparent misinterpretation of the piece's message, sings a harsh aria praising the Cultural Revolution and glorifying her own role in it: "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung." A revolutionary chorus echoes her words.
On the last evening of the Americans' visit, as they lie in their respective beds, the chief protagonists muse on their personal histories in a surreal series of interwoven dialogues. Nixon and Pat recall the struggles of their youth. Nixon mentions wartime memories: "Sitting round the radio." Mao and Chiang Ch'ing dance together, as the Chairman remembers "the tasty little starlet" who came to his headquarters during the early days of the revolution. As they reminisce, Chiang Ch'ing asserts that "the revolution must not end." Chou meditates along. The opera finishes on a thoughtful note with his aria "I am old and I cannot sleep", asking: "How much of what we did was good?" The early morning birdcalls summon him to resume his work, while "outside this room the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass."
Highlights of the Opera
- Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman. It was Adams's first opera and was inspired by President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China. Like Adams's future operas, particularly Dr. Atomic, Nixon in China brilliantly shows the official and the more personal sides of the characters. Pat Nixon, like Kitty Oppenheimer, envisions a peaceful world and worries about the direction in which the world is moving.
- Adams collaborated closely with Peter Sellers, the producer, and Mark Morris, the choreographer, to create the opera. Fascinated by Nixon's decision to make the visit and assuming that the strategy was an election ploy, Sellars had the original idea for the opera. Adams was initially reluctant. He had never written an opera, and he presumed that Sellars was proposing a satire. Eventually, Adams decided that the work could be a study in how myths come to be, and he changed his mind. Goodman's libretto was the result of considerable research into Nixon's visit, although she disregarded most sources that were published after the historic trip. Adams, Sellars, and Goodman focused on the six main characters, three Americans and three Chinese.
- As Adams worked on the opera, his perception of Nixon changed. Having previously disliked Nixon, he began to see the President as "an interesting character who sometimes showed emotion in public." Adams wanted Mao to be "the Mao of the huge posters and Great Leap Forward." He cast Mao as a heldentenor. Mao's wife was to be someone who could reveal her private fantasies, her erotic desires, and even tragic awareness in the final act. Nixon has actually been compared to Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, a self-doubting, lyrical, and at times self-pitying melancholy baritone.
- Adams was extremely original in creating the sounds that he wanted. He augmented the orchestra with a large saxophone section, additional percussion with special effects (e.g. wood block sandpaper blocks, slapsticks, and sleigh bells), and electronic synthesizer. Although the score has at times been described as "minimalist", it displays a variety of musical styles. These include the minimalist approach of Philip Glass and passages that are reminiscent of both Richard Wagner and Johann Strauss. He adds to the mix Stravinskian 20th century neoclassicism, references to jazz, and big band sounds that are reminiscent of Nixon's youth in the 1930s. The combination of these elements varies frequently, reflecting changes in the action on stage. Nixon's radical change from hard core anti-communist to the American leader who took the first step in improving Sino-American relations led to a new political slogan: "Only Nixon could go to China."
- Sellars, the producer, had an important influence on the music. At the time of the conception of Nixon in China, he was engaged in the staging the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas. Ensembles play a major role in these operas, and Sellars encouraged Adams and Goodman to make other allusions to classical operatic forms. An expectant chorus opens the opera. The heroic aria for Nixon following his entrance and the dueling toasts in the final scene of Act I are examples of Sellars's influence. During rehearsal, Sellars revised the staging for the final scene, changing it from a banquet hall in the aftermath of a slightly alcohol-fueled dinner to the characters' bedrooms.
- Nixon in China was jointly commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Netherlands Opera, and the Washington Opera. Each company planned an early production of the work. Fearing that the opera might be challenged as defamatory or not in the public domain, Houston Grand Opera obtained insurance to cover such an eventuality. Prior to the stage premiere, the opera was presented in concert form in San Francisco (May, 1987), with Adams leading intermission discussions.
- The opera premiered on the Brown Stage at the new Wortham Theater Center in Houston on October 22, 1987. John DeMain conducted the Houston Grand Opera. Nixon himself received an invitation to attend, but he declined due to illness and an impending publication deadline. The Houston premiere corresponded with the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association, guaranteeing that the audience would be very discriminating. Members of the association had the opportunity to meet with the opera's production team. When Carolann Page, who sang the role of Pat Nixon, waved to the audience in her character as First Lady, many waved back at her.
- Reactions to the opera were mixed. A general complaint was the difficulty in understanding the words. There were no subtitles. According to Adams himself, it is not necessary to understand all the words upon first hearing an opera. Some critics dismissed the work and predicted that it would soon vanish. Writing in The New York Times, Donal Henahan called the Houston Grand Opera premiere of the work "worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory." Henahan and other critics were wrong, and the opera has been presented in both Europe and North America. There have been many recordings.
- Following performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in Washington, DC, the European premiere took place at Muziektheater in Amsterdam in June 1988. Productions in Germany (1988) and at the Edinburgh International Festival (1988) followed. For the 1990 Los Angeles production, Sellars made revisions to darken the opera in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests. He also authorized the use of subtitles. After a performance in Paris in 1991, performances of the opera became relatively rare. Writing in The New York Times in 1996, Alex Ross speculated on why the opera "dropped from sight." Nixon was a politically polarizing figure, and at the time, perhaps audiences were not ready to appreciate an opera about current times.
- The first performance of Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera took place in 2011. Nixon's daughter Tricia Nixon Cox was in the audience. The production was based on the original sets. That same year, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto mounted an abstract production. Adams himself conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale for performances in 2017 during a series of concerts celebrating the composer's 70th birthday. Recent critical opinion has tended to recognize the opera as a significant and lasting contribution to American opera.
- Just as political polarization may have contributed to the absence of performances of the opera for a long interval, today, politics again plays a role today. Given the strained relationship between the United States and China, the opera has not been performed in either country. Europe has been a different story. There have been performances in Dortmund, Hannover, and Paris. In Paris, between opening night on March 25, 2023 and closing on April 16, 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Junping, and came away declaring that European leaders must distance themselves from US policy regarding China. These productions, by Valentina Carrasco, stripped away Peter Sellars's original version and changed the visuals. John Fulljames's 2023 production in Madrid, previously seen in Denmark (2019) and Scotland (2020), also made changes to the original.
About this Website
The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.
Questions and Additional Information
Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or firstname.lastname@example.org.