John Adams: Nixon in China (1985-7)
Essay on Adams
Essay on Nixon in China
You can see photographs from Nixon's visit and learn more about it here.
You can access a real audio sample from the opera, including the full aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery" at Boosey and Hawkes, Adams' publisher's, webpage devoted to him.
John Adams's opera Nixon in China, set to a libretto in rhyming couplets by Alice Goodman, began as an idea of the theater director Peter Sellars. The idea was to have an opera that reflected the groundbreaking visit of Richard Nixon to China in the 1970s. After many back-channel negotiations by Henry Kissenger, Nixon was able to visit the closed state and meet Chairman Mao in hopes, of course, of finding new markets for American goods in the context of a cultural rapprochement. Such a cultural breakthrough was an enormous one for the Americans akin to when Commodore Matthew Perry forced open the Japanese market in the 1850s.
Adams's opera is unique in that it dealt with living people and a contemporary political situtation in the context of high art. Nixon is treated as a paranoid, eternally concerned with his image. This becomes increasingly apparent as the aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery" moves to its conclusion.
Adams has continued his interest of viewing contemorary events through the lens of opera in his operas, The Death of Klinghoffer about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, and I was looking at the ceiling when I saw the sky about the San Francisco Earthquake.
Musically, Adams is considered one of the more "refined" of the minimalists and has been seeking to expand the vocabulary of the style. He has spoken about using different types of scales and scalar materials, including some derived by the late conductor, composer and musicologist, Nicholas Slonimsky, within the context of the minimalist techniques.
as photographed by William Clift
News has a kind of mystery:
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the world was listening.
Though we spoke quietly
The eyes and ears of history
Caught every gesture -
- introduce -
And every word, transforming us
As we, transfixed, -
- the Deputy
Minister of Security.
- May I -
On our flight over from Shanghai
The Minister -
Looked drab and grey. "Brueghel," Pat said.
"We came in peace for all mankind"
I said, and I was put in mind
Of our Apollo astronauts
- of the United States
Acheiving a great human dream.
We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies? Who are
Our friends? The Eastern Hemisphere
Beckoned to us, and we have flown
East of the sun, west of the moon
Across an ocean of distrust
Filled with the bodies of our lost;
The Earth's Sea of Tranquility.
It's prime time in the U.S.A.
Yestersday night. They watch us now;
The three main networks' colors glow
Livid through drapes onto the lawn.
Dishes are washed and homework done,
The dog and grandma fall asleep,
A car roars past playing loud pop,
Is gone. As I look down the road
I know America is good
At heart. An old cold warrior
Piloting toward an unknown shore
Through shoals. The rats begin to chew
The sheets. There's murmuring below.
Now there's ingratitude! My hand
Is steady as a rock. A sound
Like mourning doves reaches my ears,
Nobody is a friend of ours.
The nations' heartland skips a beat
As our hands shield the spinning globe
From the flame-throwers of the mob.
We must press on. We know we want -
What? - Oh yes -
Mr. President -
Libretto by Alice Goodman
(top to bottom) Air Force One arrives in Beijing;
Nixon greets Chou en-Lai
Nixon meets Chairman Mao