The tradition of opera
is one filled with mythological references and larger-than-life heroes, more often than not from the classical canon; the first operas were based on the Orpheus
story, and subsequent composers would go back again and again to the Greek
and Roman myth
s and histories that inspired the classic masters. The resurgence of interest in classical music
led composers to seek ancient sources for texts. Myth appeals to writers of opera because it is eternal, forever relevant and forever capable of being related to current life. Whether the myth has classical or other folk
roots, its characters endure because they are archetypical
, and its stories endure because they arise from common and pervasive emotions. The mythological hero
is not free from such emotion
, for he is human
, but he is also more than human. He has some extraordinary skill or acts extraordinarily well. He is looked on as an example, and he is who the common person aspires to be. The arts represent such heroes, who are both ideal representatives of humanity but who in representing people are subject to flaws
. In opera, such heroes are writ large, characterized through both text and music. The mythological nature of these heroes allow them to be enlarged on the stage, which by its nature is also larger-than-life, reality thrown on a wall in giant shadows.
Today’s mythology, however, is all-new. No longer do the ancient myths move us as they once did. Knowledge and cosmopolitanism have replaced the need for their explanations and reassurances, yet we still feel drawn to mythology and mythological heroes. Popular culture has replaced myth, famous people ancient heroes. Today’s heroes are movie stars, politicians, all of those who appear in newspapers, magazines, and television shows, whose lives seem as distant to ours as did the lives of mythological characters. They live familiar but exaggerated lives, and we are not quite sure that they are real. They are exotic, but we identify with them because they seem to live in our everyday world, and they make it seem more glamorous. We aspire to be these heroes, and while we recognize and mourn their faults, we also have a deep-seated belief that they are somehow better, more impressive than we. Too, opera can address important issues at the time of its composition: “every time Nixon has been produced, some public event has just happened, or is happening...there always seems to be something that's tangentially related to this subject going on in the world, which maybe suggests that this is the proper thing for opera to do. It was certainly the case in Verdi and Wagner's time. Opera addressed hotly debated issues that people thought about all the time,” Adams said. This political drama was certainly a hot topic at the time, and still is.
Nixon’s visit to China was a staged media event that opened up a new world. China and the United States had long been uneasy with one another, and no head of state had visited since before the Cultural Revolution. The tension between these two governments, one of which did not even recognize the other as an official government, could hardly be forgotten, but Nixon’s gesture was a vital first step in opening “the gates to friendly contact” (Chou En-lai) towards “the goal of building a world structure of peace and justice in which all may stand together with equal dignity.” (R. Nixon) More than 300 Americans accompanied Nixon on his visit, four dozen of whom were news correspondents. A special satellite system was established to broadcast the Nixons’ steps back to the States, and the visit merited headlines and three pages in the New York Times every day. The mythology of this visit was being created in realtime by the media, a force made powerful by fast and readily available communications technology. Neither was Nixon’s the only myth. On the Chinese side, this process of creating modern myths had been consciously embarked upon during the Cultural Revolution, when the culture of the bourgeois was purged from the national consciousness to be replaced by a newly created socialist canon whose literature, art, dance, and music reflected the ideals of the Communist Party, populated by heroes of the revolution demonstrating fiercely loyal behavior towards the Party and by villains drawn entirely from the ranks of the capitalist and nationalist oppressor. The leaders of the party themselves were incorporated into this mythology, turned into demi-magical beings who brought salvation to the people. “And of course these people did think of themselves as heroes.” (Adams) In their own eyes, as well as in the eyes of their public, both Nixon and Mao were important, heroic men.
When Nixon visited China in February, 1972, he was initiating a dialogue with a government which for the last twenty years had been opposed by the United States although it had come into power in China in 1949. Although his visit alone would not prove sufficient to end the tension between the two nations, which would not ease until after Mao’s death and China’s heavy economic reforms of the eighties, it was of as much gestural importance as when “Mr. Nixon grasped the hand that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spurned at the Geneva Conference in 1954” (Alden Whitman) at the Beijing airport. The transformation of his visit into opera follows two main lines of narrative, that of the male players and that of the female players. The narratives are connected to one another, and both move from the public to the private, but their purposes are different. The important men are Nixon, Mao, Henry Kissinger, and premier Chou En-lai, and they inhabit the extroverted first act. The women are Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s fourth wife, whose important moments are in the second act. What mark these separate narratives are the differences between the visits of Nixon and his wife. Nixon went to China to have political discussions with Chou and Mao in their studies. Pat went to China to visit the people and demonstrate goodwill to them, and it is Pat who makes the more important impression on them, relieving the two countries’ tension by establishing a rapport with her guides. Nixon in China is not only about one head of state making an official visit to an enemy country. It is also about the differences and the relationships between men and women, and it is about the separation between one’s private and one’s public persona. It is about ordinary people with huge responsibilities who nonetheless cannot help but be normal people with unextraordinary ways of coping with their lives.
Yet none of this is initially apparent. The idea of an opera based on a politician’s uneventful visit to a foreign nation is so unusual that one is immediately taken aback. Certainly, it was initially difficult for media and critics to look past this oddity. Indeed, it was difficult even for its composer, John Adams, who when the director Peter Sellars approached him with the idea, turned him down. The image of the Watergate Nixon was too strong in Adams’s mind, a Nixon often laughed at who was not at all the Nixon of what would become Nixon in China. But “what they were trying to do with this Nixon, their operatic Nixon, was not only to use the historical Richard Nixon but also to try to develop an archetype of an American public leader.” (Adams) Sellars convinced Adams, eventually, recruiting Alice Goodman to write a libretto in couplets. Both Goodman and Adams insisted that the opera be heroic and not satirical (which is not to say it does not have its humorous moments, such as when Kissinger misses out on the last act because he is in the bathroom), and indeed the material lends itself far more to heroicism in the mythological style than to the satirical.
The drama is driven by its characters, who are much deeper than any satirical character could ever be as well as deeper than the popular media of the time made them out to be. Pat Nixon is not mere quiet presidential wife, but a person strong in herself who had in her own life suffered and triumphed and had to be not only independent but responsible for others, much as Nixon is now responsible for many. All the named characters have real personalities and histories, and this is demonstrated in their words and their music. Says Adams, “One of the things about the story...(was) the opportunity to move, during the course of three acts, from the plastic cartoon versions of public people that the media is always presenting us with, to the real, uncertain, vulnerable human beings who stand behind these cardboard cutouts.” Adams and Goodman’s portrayal of them is sympathetic but honest; that they are not necessarily good people is not overlooked, but it seems we are led to see them as they see themselves. They express themselves “as eloquently as they can” (Adams) both in public and to themselves as the opera progresses from extroversion to introversion.
Act I of the opera is the extroverted part of the opera. In it the press is always present, and the characters, especially Nixon, are painfully aware that everything they say is being recorded and sent to millions of people who are watching their every move. Every word and gesture is of political importance, and what the characters say are public things, calculated for all the ears that overhear them. Scene i takes place as The Spirit of ‘76 taxis onto the stage and the Nixons disembark to be greeted by a large contingent (the real number was 500) of men, led by Premier Chou. Nixon, in fact, sings an aria about all the media that is surrounding him; “It’s prime time in the U.S.A.” He says “when I shook hands with Chou En-lai on this bare field outside Peking just now, the whole world was listening. And though we spoke quietly the eyes and ears of history caught every gesture.” As the opera moves into scene ii, Nixon and Kissinger are taken to Chairman Mao’s study, where the three of them and Premier Chou engage in a political and philosophical discussion. For a while they are still watched by the press, and then when the press leaves, Chou “sits a little straighter, as do the President and Dr. Kissinger. Only Chairman Mao continues to lean back...” Nixon can hardly hold his own against Mao, who is educated and well-spoken where Nixon can only stumble along in banal chatter. After the reporters leave, the four launch into their respective opinions, Mao explaining the Chinese people’s current philosophical situation as well as the United States’. Chou ends the conversation, reminding the Americans that “you overlook the fact that hands are raised to strike, hands are stretched out to seize their kill. Here where we stand, beyond the pale, your outstretched hand, the Russian’s wave, appear ambiguous.” Finally, scene iii takes place on the evening of this first day. A banquet is being held for the Nixons, who try to catch a moment alone but can only exchange a few words before they are swept up again in the public exchange. Pat predicts that it will snow, but that spring will come after that. But even this innocent comment is turned into a political statement by Kissinger and Chou: “Meanwhile we sit together in the cold. Huddled for warmth you meant? But could we not take some encouragement from this appearance of détente?” After the third course, toasts begin. Chou toasts the Americans. Nixon toasts the Chinese. Everyone goes from table to table, toasting one another.
Act II is the women’s scene. Pat is being taken on a tour around Beijing. She visits the Evergreen People’s Commune, where she is shown the People’s Clinic, a model swine-rearing facility, and a school. She is given a small glass elephant that reminds her of her husband’s political party. She then visits the Summer Palace, where at the gate of Longevity and Good Will she stops to sing that “This is prophetic!” She predicts “a time will come when luxury dissolves into the atmosphere like a perfume, and everywhere the simple virtues root and branch and leaf and flower.” Finally, she visits the Ming Tombs, where she sees a stone elephant and is again reminded of the Republican Party. By this time she and her guides have become quite comfortable with one another. She has told them about her poor childhood and prophesized equality. She “takes the arm of her interpreter—a friendly gesture—as the group turns back towards the limousine...” Scene ii has the Nixons attending a ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, which has been carefully directed by Chiang Ch’ing, who is also in attendance, as well as Chou. The Red Detachment of Women is about a girl, Ching Hua, who, oppressed by her Nationalist and tyrannical landlord, runs away only to be recaptured and beaten. She is left for dead, but is revived by a rain shower and found by a militia of woman peasants, who, led by Party Representative Hung Chang-Ching plan an attack on the landlord who abused Ching Hua. In the opera, Pat Nixon is so drawn into the ballet and outraged at Ching Hua’s treatment that she rushes onto the stage to help her. President Nixon follows her up. They accompany Ching Hua for the rest of the ballet, which is interrupted by Chiang Ch’ing before it can end. She tries to edit the ballet even as it is performed, and ultimately she stops the action entirely to sing about herself. “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” she says, “who raised the weak above the strong. When I appear the people hang upon my words, and for his sake whose wreaths are heavy round my neck I speak according to the book.”
In Act III, the characters are finally allowed to be private persons. It is the last evening, and a band is playing familiar American music quietly in the background. Everyone is tired and reflective in their six beds at the end of the stage. The text and music are intimate, as though we are seeing into the characters’ minds, and “what could be more intimate and private than your own bed?” (Adams) Kissinger leaves to go to the bathroom. The Maos dance, talking to one another about their past. The Nixons also talk to each other about their past. Eventually, it is apparent that each character is for the most part talking to himself or herself, not really listening to what anyone else is saying in response. It is Chou who makes the last statement. “How much of what we did was good? Everything seems to move beyond our remedy. Come, heal this wound. At this hour nothing can be done. Just before dawn the birds begin, the warblers who prefer the dark, the cagebirds answering. To work! Outside this room the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass.”
Indeed, the libretto alone speaks a lot of what the opera is about. It is one of those few excellent opera librettos that can be read and studied as a piece of poetry whose clarity and beauty transcend the symbolic language upon which it is based. It is the lyricism of the text that allows the composer to create the lyric and expressive music to pair with it. Despite Alice Goodman’s statement that “(her) Nixon is not quite the same character as John Adams’s Nixon...” the disparity between the musical Nixon in China and the textual Nixon in China is not as great as it can often be, when a composer is presented with a text he does not agree with. As Goodman goes on to say, “this collaboration is polyphonic. (They) have done their best to make their disagreements counterpoints; not to drown each other out, but, like the characters in the opera, each to be as eloquent as possible.” That the libretto is written in verse contributes to the heroic sound of the work, as well as the sense of careful thought. Too, it refers to the Chinese poetic form, which Mao at first used then later banned. The characters, whether they are making public speeches or talking to themselves, demonstrate a great deal of control over their words, are articulate, earnest, and descriptive; the use of metaphor is generous throughout the text, though allotted more to the Chinese than to the Americans. These are thoughtful, intelligent people, and to a degree, their political contest is made manifest in their dialogue, in which it seems as though they are all trying to outdo one another through wit.
The music deepens the tension of the meeting. Leading with the ascending A-minor scales of the overture, which are doubly present through short eighth-note and longer dotted quarter-notes, the ceaseless blanket of sound underlies the entire two and a half hours of the opera, mostly in the form of eighth notes that throb in scales, arpeggios, and the semitone motive that most characterizes the theme. Adams said of the opening that what “(he) was trying to summon up was the land and the people...It seemed to (him) when (he) thought of the Long March and of the vastness of the country, and the millions and millions of people, that the repetitive quality...was a perfect way to set that tone.” This sort of music takes its source from Adams’s minimalist influence. With pulsating rhythms and repetitions and long periods between modulations, Nixon in China takes part of its cue from the school of composers that Adams found when he moved to California after graduate school. He had always been a musician; his parents had been amateur jazz musicians, and he had started playing the clarinet when he was a child. He wrote and composed, and won a scholarship to Harvard to study music. He studied there for four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate work, but was unhappy with the trenchant devotion to the European avant-garde that did not allow him to experiment with music as he wished to do. He read John Cage, moved to California, and discovered a whole other style of music. He was not satisfied to compose music to this new model, however; what Adams wanted to do was leave the formalism of both movements and create a music that was accessible and that referred to the popular culture. Unafraid, even eager to combine elements of jazz, folk, and other popular music with the art music he had studied in school, Adams broke a lot of boundaries and annoyed a lot of people. Still, even his own work is eclectic, some of it more formal than others, and all of it filled with a Adams’s signature sense of humor.
It is this humor that allows Nixon to make Mao a tenor and Kissinger double for the oppressive landlord in the ballet. In the first scene, Nixon describes the smooth flight of his plane in descending glides that sound both smooth and rather like a child’s impression of an airplane. Nixon, though important, seems a bit silly. Mao’s every word is repeated and amplified by a trio of mezzo-sopranos, supposedly his secretaries, often referred to as the “Maoettes”. Sometimes they repeat what he says before he says it. The music describing the arrival of the presidential plane repeats itself and transforms into the sound of a rainstorm in the second act ballet. Pat Nixon is a tender lyric soprano, Chiang Ch’ing, who was once an actress and is a driving force behind the Cultural Revolution, a very insistent coloratura. That Nixon and Chou are both baritones seems to suggest that they are the important policy-making participants (Mao is a tenor and Kissinger a bass). During Nixon’s visit, the two were often hidden in private meetings whose contents were not known until they issued a joint press release at the end of the visit. Each of the characters in turn has two types of music, the public and the private. Nixon’s public voice is like a television announcers’, but his private is brooding and reflective, caught in his memories of the war. Mao’s public voice is that of the scholar, his private voice tender. In public, Chou stands behind his leader Mao, but in private his own philosophical tendencies shine through. It is in the very intimate third act that all the characters seem to relax and be themselves, and in being themselves gain a sort of camaraderie. The third act, though least active dramatically, is the most musically active of the three acts. “For much of the opera the orchestra is almost like a ukulele,” Adams says, “but in the third act the instruments somehow emerge out of the orchestra and begin to develop their own personality, they intertwine and interlock...there is much more complicated counterpoint in the last scene...in Act III we've traveled a great distance and we're no long talking so much about landscape and simple peasants, we're talking about very complicated human dynamics.”
This journey makes up the movement of the plot and the evolution of the music. What Nixon in China lacks in a plot arc is made up for in psychological development. However, a study of psychological changes may contain the expository and conclusive elements of a plot, but it lacks a climactic point. This climax is supplied artificially by the inclusion of the ballet The Red Detachment of Women. While a ballet of this name that treated the same subject was popular in revolutionary China and was performed for the Nixons during their visit, it was not the ballet inserted into the opera. This ballet was written by Adams, and it is only half-performed before it is interrupted. Adams composed the ballet to sound as though it had been written by committee. He never saw The Red Detachment during his research, but he saw a movie version of a similar ballet, The White-Haired Girl. In an interview about Nixon in China, he said that “it sounded a little bit like a committee had tried to reconstruct by memory a Glinka or perhaps a Tchaikovsky ballet, but there was a tremendous confusion of styles. It was a case of one culture trying to appropriate another culture without really understanding it.”
This observation could describe the opera as a whole. It is about a group of people who visit another country believing that reading a few briefs have prepared them for the visit. They try to take in this other culture, to process and understand it, just as the people of this other country try to understand their visitors. It is about Adams and Goodman and Sellars looking at the two cultures and offering their own interpretation of it. The music is unafraid of its American influences; its orchestration was based initially on the big band jazz sound that Adams wanted for the dance music in the last scene. But it has no Chinese influences. It does not presume to apply a music it does not understand. Adams explains: “one of the principal things that interested me was the typically American sense of assumed superiority. These Americans were coming to China with the tacit assumption that American culture is by far the better one... the opera focuses on Americans abroad, tourists I guess you could say, and the way in which Americans are caught up in world events without really understanding or anticipating what's going to happen to them.” Perhaps this view is part of what was responsible for the uncomfortable response to the opera. Nixon in China was greatly hyped before its opening; Adams was a first-time opera composer, and the material that he and Sellars and Goodman had chosen was a little too close to home for the opera audience. It expected stories far removed from its lives, and instead got something that it remembered all too well from not so many years ago. The subject matter became a controversy (though not as much as did the trio’s second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer). Most critics disliked the choice, seeing it as further demonstration of Adams’s tendency towards the crass that they had seen in his “pastiche” work Grand Pianola Music.
Still, Adams’s style of combining influences and connecting art music to popular music should not be disparaged. Rather, it brings together genres that have become so separate as to seem to be feuding families. For the purposes of the opera Nixon in China, this style certainly allows a sort of idea painting unavailable to a more rigid composer. The concept of Nixon in China requires a mixed music that can express the varied moods and histories of the characters in both their public and private moods. It is by giving them their most familiar music that the opera can portray them in their most heroic light. Although the concept is unusual and the dramatic structure subtle, Nixon in China is a successful opera. One identifies with the protagonists, is drawn into the plot, and is moved by the music, released only when the strings slowly ascend and fade away in a delicate pianissimo after Chou’s last words, the blanket of sound finally drawn aside. Its story is mythic, and, as the peasants say in the first chorus, “the people are the heroes now.” Today’s opera must treat a new type of story, one that is current and that addresses the popular culture that is the medium of most of the population. It must leave behind the conceit of high art, embrace the masses and absorb their culture, so that it is not lost in its inaccessibility but rather returns to a position of importance in the popular culture.
I referred to the following for information:
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. Stanly Sodie and John Tyrell. New York: Grove's Dictionaries, 2001. Volume 1: pp. 143-146.
Minimalists. K. Robert Schwarz. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. Chapter 6: pp. 170-187.
American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music. Edward Strickland. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991 pp. 176-194.
'Towards Nixon in China', program note. Alice Goodman. 1987.
'Nixon in China', program note. Michael Steinberg. 1987.
Nixon in China. John Adams and Alice Goodman. Vocal score. Boosey&Hawkes, 1987.
M.N. Daines: 'An Interview with John Adams', Opera Quarterly, xiii/1 (1996-7), 37-54.
M.N. Daines: ‘Nixon’s Women: Gender politics and Cultural Representation in Act 2 of Nixon in China’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 79, no. 1 (1995), 6-34.
A. Porter: 'Nixon in China: John Adams in Conversation', Tempo, no. 167 (1988), 25-20.
The New York Times. February 21—February 23, 1972.
Note: To all the people who wrote to me about helping with the pinyin (thank you): I kept the romanization in things I quoted as they had been written in the original texts (consider them (sic)ed! But I will work on linking the ones that are like that to pinyin names so that the softlinks will work. --jandradt