No modern opera has ever been followed with as much interest, or its premiere so anticipated, as Nixon in China. “I felt like I was pregnant with the royal heir,” Adams has said of the time of its composition, “so great was the attention focused on it by the media and the musical community at large… As it turned out, an unstaged sing-through with piano accompaniment done in San Francisco five months before the actual premiere attracted critics from twelve national newspapers and was even mentioned (and sardonically dismissed) by Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News.”
The actual premiere took place at the Houston Grand Opera in October of 1987 followed closely by performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Netherlands Opera. Andrew Porter pointed out in his New Yorker review of the opera that the Nixons, Henry Kissinger, and Madame Mao, had she not been in prison for her role in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, all could have attended the premiere. Nixon in China has since had numerous revivals including at the Los Angeles Opera in 1990 and, most recently, at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in London in June of 2000.
John Adams describes the initial impetus for the work: “As a child growing up in New Hampshire and having for a mother an old-school liberal Democrat, an active selfless party volunteer, I developed early on a fascination for American political life… So it was somewhat of a natural fit when the topic of Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, capitalism, and communism should be proposed to me as the subject for an opera. The idea was that of the stage director Peter Sellars, whom I’d met – in New Hampshire, fittingly enough – in the summer of 1983. I was slow to realize the brilliance of his idea, however. By 1983 Nixon had become the stuff of bad, predictable comedy routines, and it was difficult to untangle my own personal animosity – he’d tried to send me to Vietnam – from the larger historical picture. But when the poet Alice Goodman agreed to write a verse libretto in couplets, the project suddenly took on a wonderfully complex guise, part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues.”
To facilitate performances in the concert hall Adams has fashioned three suites from the opera: The Nixon Tapes. This particular suite begins with the Prelude and the first scene of Act I, where a chorus of Chinese military personnel sing excerpts from Mao Tse-tung’s Three Main Rules of Discipline and The Eight Points of Attention. After a powerful crescendo in the orchestra signals the arrival of The Spirit of ’76, the Nixons deplane and shake hands with Chinese premiere Chou En-lai, and the American President, in Goodman’s words, “sings of his excitements and his fears.”
The suite continues with Pat Nixon’s aria “This is prophetic!”, a reflection on a visit to the Evergreen People’s Commune. In Adams’ words, “Pat [Nixon] was the ideal, 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 that could only have seen countless bouts of depression and crushing humiliation.”
The suite then returns to the third scene of Act I for a telling dialogue between the Nixons, Henry Kissinger, and Chou En-lai.
Again, Adams: “To my mind Alice Goodman’s poem is to me one of the great as-yet-unrecognized works of American theater. Her words are a summary, an incantation of the American experience, and her Richard Nixon is our presidential Everyman: banal, bathetic, sentimental, paranoid. Yet she does not deny him an attempt, albeit couched in homely metaphors of space travel and good business practice, to articulate a vision of American life.”
Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Publications Assistant. He was also the music copyist for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations.
Orchestration: 2 flutes (1 & 2 = piccolo), 2 oboes (2 = English horn), 3 clarinets (1 = E-flat clarinet, 2 & 3 = bass clarinet), soprano saxophone, 2 alto saxophones (2 = tenor sax), tenor saxophone (= baritone sax), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, percussion (bass drum, pedal bass drum, wood block, suspended cymbal, snare drum, tambourine, high hat, sizzle cymbal, glockenspiel, slapping sound), 2 electric pianos, keyboard sampler, strings, SATB chorus, and soloists (soprano, 2 baritone, bass).
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.