Nixon In China

During the second intermission of the Saturday night performance of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China at the Met, I remarked to a composer in attendance that this was the first time I had seen the work staged and, even though I knew the music well from recordings and the score, it seemed as if I was hearing it for the first time. Although he was fortunate to have seen this same English National Opera production in that country, he concurred: he had the same experience there. There’s a psychological factor involved, I think, having to do with the excitement of finally seeing a work that you had hoped to someday experience. But that’s really just a small part, and to give proper credit, this first opera from the team of Adams, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, now almost twenty-five years old, is a stunningly great work, one of the masterpieces of the genre.

Perhaps it takes the live performance to show this because the novelty is still there, kept alive by the legacy of what came to be called CNN operas, works developed out of the facts and events of contemporary history. But Nixon in China is not like that at all, and this is clear when all the pieces come together on stage. If the goal of the piece was to document the meeting between a craven, petty failed president and one of the great villains of the twentieth century, then there is no way the opera would have the effect it does. And that effect is utterly mesmerizing and extraordinarily moving.

It works with such power because it’s an opera. That’s a useful tautology. It’s an opera from the ground up, a musical drama that integrates libretto, music and staging from the initial conception. Everything works together, everything is done for a reason. I have seen so many post-Nixon American operas that are directly extracted from events, news, life, and the best I can say is that they are forgettable. They all, from Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking to Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit, have the same problem: Put the question, why are you an opera, to them, and they have no answer. Either the drama they strive to convey would be more appropriately supported by a different form, or they fail to do anything more than set words to music.

Adams’ music is great, but as good as the music sounds on both the original Nonesuch recording (now reissued) and the great and superior recent live CD from Naxos, the meaning of that music, it’s purpose and effect, is apparent only when combined with what’s happening on stage. The riveting complexity of the second act is an ideal example; in the second scene the Nixons witness a performance of a typical Socialist Realist opera, with a peasant girl whipped by some capitalist lackeys. Pat is horrified and intervenes, thinking that the drama is real. As the action plays out through singing and a sensational ballet by Mark Morris, the music represents both what’s happening in the opera and the performance within the opera. A tropical storm builds in this internal space, starting with a direct quote from Phillip Glass then swelling into music right out of Das Rheingold. As the rain clears, Pat has become part of the resolution of this story. It’s an incredible musical and dramatic transformation, we’ve been moved into what seems another dimension, and the opera itself has become immensely more complex and dramatic. It is the greatest feat of operatic dramaturgy I have ever witnessed, and it’s an inherent part of the composition. It is also the kind of simultaneous and multidimensional dramatic artifice that can only happen in opera.

This production and performance is the most directly involving opera I’ve witnessed. As Nixon steps out of the door of Air Force One, to hints of Parsifal, the audience at the Met applauded. James Maddalena’s wave back is part of the staging, but in that moment he seemed to be responding directly and spontaneously to us. There is also a simple, mysterious and tremendously effective bit of stagecraft during the banquet scene that concludes the first act; as the characters stood for ceremonial toasts, the house lights slowly came all the way up and we were seemingly all together in the same hall.

That is how we care about Nixon, Mao and Pat. Another reason we care is the marvelous libretto from Alice Goodman. The Anglican church’s gain has been opera’s great loss, she had no equal in this style of writing, which is so difficult. A libretto is not just a text, it’s a sung text, it needs to make it’s argument and it also needs to be musical. Her approach, poetic and actually edged more towards oratorio than opera, gives us Nixon and Mao as vain leaders, bickering over the details but enjoying the amity of their mutual status. She, Sellars and Adams set the piece in history but they don’t give us a documentary, or even a metaphor. They give us encounters, reveries, memories and misunderstandings. Nixon expresses his sincere, naïve reverence for America:

As I look down the road

I know America is good at heart

And one line later he turns inward, to his bitter, paranoid heart:

The rats begin to chew the sheets

There’s murmuring below

Now there’s ingratitude!

Combined with the music, we know who this man is, and we may not like him but we pay attention to him. That is how a libretto is wrought.

Maddalena is almost frighteningly good as a Nixon who is singing to us. His voice has become much deeper and darker than when he originated the role, and he seemed to be fighting a cold, but his sound and manner could not be more right for the character. He’s real, so we listen to him. Janis Kelly was just as real as Pat, her aria, “This is prophetic!,” in Act II was mesmerizing and her singing deeply affecting. Robert Brubaker was equally good as Mao, expressing a comparable vanity and bitterness.

It is Chou En-lai who is the moral center of the work, not because he has answers but because the character has a basic sincerity and willingness to question what is happening. The original role featured the wonderful Sanford Sylvan, but I found Russell Braun at the Met to be a better choice. His darker bass baritone sounds plainly more adult than Sylvan’s lighter and lovelier instrument, and the beauty of his singing was less in his sound, which was excellent, than the great, moving, expressive force. He sang like a man who has doubts about himself, his convictions, and the world, and yet was committed to doing his best. The thoughtful artistry of the performance was matched by Adams in the pit, conducting the score with a gentle, lyrical, searching touch that was very different than the tougher, brilliant recordings. In a form as extroverted as opera, it seems impossible to dig deep into interior experience in front of 3,000 people, but that’s what Adams and the singers did. At the end, as the Nixons drift off to sleep on the flight home, and Mao falls into post-coital somnolence, it is Chou and the orchestra who sing to us, “I am old and cannot sleep,” of regrets, and fears. The character seemed alone in the universe, singing into emptiness. He hopes, he hopes, and a lonely cello rises up, trying to reach him, followed by a violin. And then it ends. But it can’t be forgotten.

Remaining performances are Wednesday February 9, Saturday February 12 (the HD movie theater broadcast), Tuesday February 15 and Saturday February 19. Go here for tickets and more.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.