• Nixon in China Educator Guide

What to Expect from Nixon in China

The standard operatic repertory is filled with great works based on historical subjects, including Verdi’s Don Carlo, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, to name just a few. Nixon in China, by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, was first performed in 1987. It initiated a flood of English-language music theater works that tell stories from current or recent history, including The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony and Thulani Davis, Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie, Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally, Jackie O by Michael Daugherty and Wayne Koestenbaum, and Adams’s own The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic.

Nixon in China tells of the groundbreaking visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon to Communist China in February 1972, during which he met with Party Chairman Mao Zedong (spelled Tse-tung in the opera) and other Chinese leaders, flinging wide the long-closed doors between the U.S. and China. This event inspired Adams to write his first opera: “part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues,” as he described it.

  • Classroom Activity

    A full-length activity, designed to support your ongoing curriculum.
  • Musical Highlights

    Two "Musical Highlights" designed to focus on bits of music from Nixon in China to cultivate familiarity with the work.
  • Performance Activities

    Performance Activities for students to enjoy during the Metropolitan Opera HD transmission.
  • Post-Show Discussion

    A post-transmission activity, integrating the Live in HD experience into students' wider views of the performing arts and humanities.

Nixon in China at the Met

President Nixon called his China visit “the week that changed the world.” Far more than merely a diplomatic benchmark, it was a public relations triumph for both the Chinese hosts and the American guests, and a pioneering opportunity to turn modern media to the purpose of myth-making. Americans were treated to an eight-day TV extravaganza, their first peek behind the “Bamboo Curtain” for over two decades. Adams and his close collaborator, director Peter Sellars, sought to underline “how dictatorships on the right and on the left throughout the century had carefully managed public opinion through a form of public theater and the cultivation of ‘persona’ in the political arena.”

The composer and his librettist Alice Goodman focused their storytelling tightly on six remarkable and sharply contrasting personalities, set in symmetrical configuration: Richard Nixon and his wife Pat, Chariman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing (spelled Chiang Ch'ing in the opera), and their deputies Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai). Moreover, they chose to play out their drama more internally than externally. In six tableaux of largely ceremonial action, the characters lay bare their psyches and their often clashing Eastern and Western views in a series of connected soliloquies and conversations, their public and private worlds woven together.

Goodman’s libretto is written in rhymed, metered couplets that echo both traditional Western opera and Chinese poetic and theatrical styles. Her text mixes authentic reportage and actual quotations from the individuals concerned, stylized Chinese oratory and corny American vernacular, and yet transcends these artifacts to create humor, poignancy, and truly evocative poetry.

All of this rests within a framework of traditional operatic forms: recitatives, arias, ensembles, choruses, and instrumental interludes. The overall musical style Adams took his inspiration from is referred to as Minimalism—a 20th-century idiom that explores the limits of traditional Western sound by repeating and subtly varying a minimum of musical material.