In 1972, President Richard Nixon traveled to China to meet with Mao Zedong in an effort to strengthen relations between the two countries in the later years of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most important diplomatic moments of the 20th century, and it’s the visit that would have defined Nixon if Watergate never happened. It’s the kind of real life epic that could only be captured in an opera.
At least that’s what John Adams thought in 1983 when he began writing the score to his first opera to Alice Goodman’s libretto and Mark Morris’ choreography. Adams wrote the opera by the encouragement of stage director Peter Sellars, who saw the complexities of Nixon’s visit; it could have been an election ploy, a genuine diplomatic mission, or both. However, Adams and Sellars did not want to create another bland satire poking at the easy target of Nixon, an awkward power-hungry stiff who is perhaps the easiest American President to make fun of. The goal of the opera was to explore the humans on both sides of the meeting and to capture the historical moment from those who were actually there. Even the title Nixon in China invokes some involuntary humor – can you imagine Richard Nixon walking around in China? Adams understands what he’s going up against in his attempt to humanize Nixon, and the play’s success is how he often gets close to his goal.
The main characters are Nixon and his wife Pat, Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), and the two advisors of each leader, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. The opera is divided into three acts: Act One details the first night of the visit and the initial meetings between Nixon and Mao, Act Two follows Pat around rural China and exploring everyday Chinese life, and Act Three describes Nixon’s last night in China and everyone’s mixed feelings on the success of the visit.
Nixon in China has always been more influential than acclaimed – its initial reviews were mixed – but over the years it has earned its position as one of America’s most important operas. It is more famous for its existence than its success as an emotional engaging piece of music; few operas are based on a media event that was televised all around the world. Though the opera takes place in China, Adams’ score borrows almost entirely from Philip Glass’ minimalist style and rarely takes on any Oriental influence. That’s where Goodman’s libretto comes in, which is written in rhymed and metered couplets inspired by traditional Chinese poetry and theater.
American operas may not be as established or as grand as its European siblings, but Nixon in China was, and still is, a groundbreaking attempt at turning an old and inaccessible musical style into something modern and, dare I say, relatable? Also, does anyone think the beginning of the opera sounds like Elliott Smith?