In 1985, in the midst of the Reagan administration, three young artists—a composer, a poet, and a stage director—huddled together in a conference room of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to sketch the first plans for what would become one of the most famous American operas. The subject, Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, was provocative, and it instantly caught the attention of the country’s cultural community. From its 1987 premiere in Houston, Nixon in China challenged long-held operatic conventions, bringing the forces of contemporary history and its political leaders to the mythic level of art. John Adams’s score, Alice Goodman’s libretto, and Peter Sellars’s staging, much of it based on contemporary television and newspaper imagery, together with Mark Morris’s choreography, produced a theatrical experience that was both entertaining and profoundly thought-provoking. Almost 25 years later, on the eve of Nixon’s Met premiere, Adams and Sellars reflect on their path-breaking work.
How did the idea for this opera first come to you?
Peter Sellars Working on Haydn’s Armida, trying to understand the Vietnam War, I got out the Kissinger memoirs and was rereading my Mao. In the middle of all of that, I thought, oh, there’s an opera waiting in there!
John Adams I’d recently done a film score for a documentary about Carl Jung and had been spending a lot of time with Wagner’s operas. I was thinking a lot about myth-making, and that put me very much in the mood to create my own opera, but I had no idea what the theme should be. Then I met Peter in 1983, and he proposed the idea and even the title for Nixon in China. My first response was pretty skeptical—Nixon was little more than a butt for late-night comedians by that time. But I eventually realized it was a perfect idea, and that it was right to find our mythology in our own contemporary history.
What made it perfect?
JA As Americans, we’re obsessed with our president because that person embodies our national psyche, both the dark side—our paranoia and our tendency to abuse power—but also our idealism and our curiously American optimism. And of course these characters, Nixon and Mao, dominated my own youthful psyche while growing up in the 1960s.
PS We started with the figures we know from posters, the famous villains Mao Tse-Tung and Richard Nixon, the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger, and their wives, Madame Mao, the “White-Boned Demon,” and Pat Nixon, “the Lonely Lady of San Clemente.” Exactly because we think we know everything about these people, of course we really hardly know them at all.
JA Both Nixon and Mao were self-made political cartoons. Mao was actually quite educated and very literate, but he crafted his own political persona: the earthy peasant philosopher who is also a wily military strategist. Nixon, of course, imagined himself as representing the great “silent majority” of Middle America. He wanted to be thought of as your archetypal Rotary Club small businessman, your golfing partner and defender of middle class values. People have forgotten what a shock it was to see Nixon and Mao together, shaking hands and chatting it up. After all, China was supposed to be the dark evil empire—I remember how the Cold War image of Mao was burned into our consciousness here in the U.S. So Nixon’s trip quickly became a kind of mythological moment—I think of it as a clash of ideologies. Nixon represented the market economy, the idea that there’s nothing in life that doesn’t have a price on it. And Mao, of course, represented the social welfare state in extremis, the idea that no one should go hungry and that no one should become filthy rich, but that if you don’t go along with the plan you’re disposable. This opera focuses on a time when communism was still viewed as the principal threat to Western liberal values.
Why do you object to people labeling Nixon a “CNN opera”?
PS I really want to emphasize that it’s exactly the opposite. CNN is fast-breaking, with instant reactions, and of course the rush to judgment. Opera is about a long view. What opera offers is poetry, is music. Alice Goodman has taken these historical events and transformed them not into headlines, which reduce and simplify, but into poetry, which expands and complexifies.
JA Alice had a special gift for moving effortlessly between the public and private utterances of her characters. She gave words of genuine sincerity to Pat Nixon, but then she would turn around and have Mao’s wife deliver a murderous scorcher of an aria, making you feel the terror of this person, Chiang Ch’ing, who, just by snapping her fingers, could have you executed for the slightest political mistake. For Mao Alice found the exact tone that you read in his Red Book—all those little apothegms that millions and millions of people repeated with robotic precision. Some of the lines in Alice’s libretto have already become classics. My favorite is sung by Madame Mao: “At the breast of history, I sucked and pissed / Thoughtless and heartless, red and blind.”
You’ve said that the characters literally cried out for operatic treatment. The vocal writing for each character is very distinctive.
JA It seemed obvious that Nixon’s music would be white, big band music from the ’30s and early ’40s, which is, of course, when Dick and Pat fell in love. Pat Nixon is the ideal model of the Republican housewife. She always suppresses her own needs; her husband is the main event. Her smile is genuine, but you know that there is a lot of pain behind it. Pat is the complete antipode of Chiang Ch’ing, who started out as a movie actress, and then joined the Communist Party and over time engineered herself into being the mind and force behind the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. I wanted her to be not just a shrieking coloratura, but also someone who in the opera’s final act can reveal her private fantasies, her erotic desires, and even a certain tragic awareness. Nixon himself is a sort of Simon Boccanegra—a self-doubting, lyrical, at times self-pitying melancholy baritone. Mao is the Mao of the huge posters and Great Leap Forward. I cast him as a heldentenor.
Tell us about the orchestral and choral writing.
JA It’s a very burly orchestra, very heavy on brass, and there are four saxophones and a synthesizer. At times, it does sound like the Count Basie band or the Benny Goodman band. But that also allows me to get real power when I want to summon up the sheer magnitude and terror in the history of China. I use the chorus largely to evoke both the enormity of the landscape and the mystery of China’s past.
Baritone James Maddalena is extraordinary in the title role.
PS He inhabits the character of Nixon with astonishing depth and insight—the neuroses, the strange humor, and Nixon’s own sense of grandeur, self-importance, and ruthlessness, but also, together with Janis Kelly’s fierce, tender, and heartbreaking Pat, he gives you the remorse, the doubt, the better angel, and the private sense of failure that could never appear in public.
JA James has sung the role off and on over 20 years, and it just gets better and better. He is a great actor, hearing him sing the role is like watching Paul Scofield do King Lear or Hamlet.
So much has changed since you created this opera.
PS History itself has changed. We know so much more now than we did in the ’80s. There are new transcripts of Nixon tapes from the Oval Office, Robert Dallek has given us shocking glimpses of life behind the scenes with Nixon and Kissinger, there are new poignant materials about Pat. Madame Mao has had her trial and committed suicide a few years later while sewing ragdolls with button eyes. Mao’s doctor has written a lurid and appalling book detailing the nonstop orgies of murder, sex, and loneliness in the Forbidden City of the Chairman’s late years , including his final revenge on Chou En-Lai—refusing him medical treatment for his bladder cancer to insure that he would die before Mao. Histories of the Cultural Revolution have begun to appear, and we now have biographies for each of Mao’s translators, or “Maoettes” as we call them.
JA I think Americans have forgotten what a dark, looming menace China was portrayed to be. It’s hard for us to scroll back and realize what an immensely provocative act this was for not just an American president, but for a Republican president to break through and almost overnight announce that he was going to China. Today China is this strangely schizophrenic society, a hectic capitalist economy with an almost uncontrollable urge to develop. And yet it’s still politically a Communist country, an old-fashioned Marxist party dictatorship.
PS The economic tables have turned: China is now our banker, and President Hu will visit Washington this winter to tell us the value of the U.S. dollar, while disaster capitalism, no longer wanting to make the Chinese “just like us,” is trying to figure out how to make the West more like China—fewer freedoms, fewer rights, higher productivity, and lower wages. The production reflects these developments.
How does it feel to have Nixon arrive at the Met?
PS It’s very sweet after 25 years. We created it as anti-grand opera originally, and now it’s beautiful that at the Met it can be genuinely grand. The work was made by a group of very young, very idealistic people. We were trying to show what opera can contribute to history, which is to deepen it and move it into its more subtle, nuanced, and mysterious corners, which might just open into more surprising and satisfying possibilities for a future. —Elena Park
Nixon in China opens February 2 and will be seen live in HD on February 12. John Adams conducts and Peter Sellars directs both the stage production and HD transmission.