Adams’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Adams, a “postminimalist” composer, created a sensation with his opera Nixon in China, a work on which he collaborated with director Peter Sellars and poet Alice Goodman.

Summary of Event

As a bold attempt to repoliticize the operatic tradition, John Adams’s Nixon in China proved to be a successful artistic venture and a surprisingly popular effort; it was, as one writer noted, a “stunning success.” This was the first opera score by composer John Adams and the first libretto by poet Alice Goodman. Peter Sellars had already earned success by staging operas by George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in anachronistic settings (a Handel opera set at the Kennedy Space Center, for example). In recalling that President Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. had shrewdly exploited a line from the poetry of Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong “Seize the moment,” in a banquet toast in Beijing, Adams and Sellars pounced on popular images of this unique triumph of American diplomacy, the rapprochement of Nixon and Mao, to create a vivid stage work that quickly garnered the kind of attention seldom granted to a new American opera. Nixon in China enjoyed successful productions in Houston and New York, and a performance was broadcast on public television. Opera;Nixon in China (Adams) Nixon in China (Adams) Theater;opera Music;postminimalism [kw]Adams’s Nixon in China Premieres (Oct. 22, 1987) [kw]Nixon in China Premieres, Adams’s (Oct. 22, 1987) [kw]Premieres, Adams’s Nixon in China (Oct. 22, 1987) Opera;Nixon in China (Adams) Nixon in China (Adams) Theater;opera Music;postminimalism [g]North America;Oct. 22, 1987: Adams’s Nixon in China Premieres[06580] [g]United States;Oct. 22, 1987: Adams’s Nixon in China Premieres[06580] [c]Music;Oct. 22, 1987: Adams’s Nixon in China Premieres[06580] [c]Theater;Oct. 22, 1987: Adams’s Nixon in China Premieres[06580] Adams, John (1947-    ) Sellars, Peter Goodman, Alice DeMain, John

In pondering a pivotal moment in recent American foreign policy, the collaborators offered a striking meditation on the collision of alien cultures, a surprisingly sympathetic psychological portrait of a disgraced American leader, and a vision of a recent historical episode as equal in importance to monumental historical episodes of the past. If earlier opera composers such as Handel could offer visions of the political triumphs of Xerxes and Julius Caesar, Adams determined to do the same for the finest moment of the only American president who had been forced to resign the office. Adams’s musical style is built on the techniques of earlier minimalist composers such as Steve Reich Reich, Steve and Philip Glass, Glass, Philip placing simple, nonprogressive harmonies atop complex rhythmic patterns, but Adams shows a greater interest in soaring melodic lines. Adams’s style is postminimalist in its renewed recognition of melodic power and of the powerful potential of the minimalist style in operatic storytelling.

Peter Sellars, who first conceived the idea for what became Nixon in China, was correct in seeing media images as instant iconography in Nixon’s visit to China in February, 1972. Nixon had hoped to be greeted by vast crowds of cheering Chinese when he arrived at Beijing’s airport on February 21, 1972; he sought to end China’s estrangement from the United States and to boost his own popularity, which was plummeting as a result of the Watergate scandal. As Jonathan D. Spence Spence, Jonathan D. notes in The Search for Modern China, the real diplomatic grist was refined by committees of Chinese and American negotiators while Nixon visited the Great Wall of China and “endured an endless round of banquets.” It was these banquets and public appearances that the opera’s collaborators exploited to good effect.

As staged first at the Houston Grand Opera and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere, the opera’s production offered a succession of vivid images rescued from the national memory but presented in surrealistic ways. Richard and Pat Nixon emerge onto the tarmac at the Beijing airport, where they are met by Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai) Zhou Enlai ; Chou later toasts his American guests in a soaring vision of human brotherhood. Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) himself emerges from a window in a gigantic wall poster depicting his own face, and Chiang Ch’ing (Jiang Qing, Jiang Qing or Madame Mao), seated between the Nixons at a performance of “The Red Detachment of Women,” prompts the dancers—one of whom, as a sadistic landlord, is none other than Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, Henry In the closest thing to a showstopper in the opera, Chiang Ch’ing waves her copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (known in the West as the Little Red Book) and sings, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung . . . I speak according to the Book”; the scene reaches a frenzied climax with a ballet depicting the excesses of the Red Brigades swirling around the frightened Nixons.

The opera ends with a scene more lyrical than dramatic; the five leads engage in a series of interwoven personal musings on the historic events of the Nixons’ weeklong visit to China. Pat Nixon yearns forlornly, “Oh California, hold me close,” while Richard retreats into memories of his experiences in World War II. Mao and Chiang remember their youthful courtship in a foxtrot, while the philosophical Chou ponders “Unto what end? Tell me.” That the scene is more lyric and meditative than dramatic seems at first a major miscalculation. Did the creators find themselves unable to match the frenzied drama of the ballet scene, or did they simply wish to contrast the individual characters as they drifted off into their own dreams? The ending reinforces the impression that the opera’s creators saw Nixon’s visit to China as a significant political event with a potential for enormous good, despite the fallibility of the main actors.

Nixon in China received its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera’s new hall, the Wortham Center, on October 22, 1987, and the production was reprised the following month at the Next Wave Festival Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. The opera was the result of a joint commission by the Houston Grand Opera, the Brooklyn Academy, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Netherlands Opera. It found a wide audience when it appeared on the Public Broadcasting Service’s Great Performances series in 1988.


Unlike most new American operas, Nixon in China seemed likely to achieve a modest foothold in the repertory and to enjoy new productions. Not until John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles was produced in January, 1992, did a new American opera generate comparable enthusiasm.

Despite the widespread initial curiosity and a good deal of audience enthusiasm, Nixon in China received mixed critical reviews. In a negative review in New York magazine, Peter G. Davis Davis, Peter G. explained the rationale of the creators: “Like the heroes and heroines of any Classical or Romantic opera, these familiar public figures are initially presented as clichés who, the authors hope, are gradually transformed and perceived from a new, more elevated poetic perspective. It doesn’t work.” Davis placed the blame squarely on Adams, whom he berated for an inability to set the words dramatically or to allow them to project over the orchestra. Others more sympathetic to minimalism and postminimalism might point to the success of earlier minimalist operas on provocative historical subjects, such as the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson Wilson, Robert (theatrical artist) collaboration Einstein on the Beach Einstein on the Beach (Glass) (1976) or Glass’s Akhnaten Akhnaten (Glass) (1984), both of which enjoyed successful productions.

Nixon in China has its musical and dramatic longueurs, but the effect of the first production was oddly moving. Inveterate Nixon haters and liberals among the audience who may have come hoping for an evening of Nixon bashing went home puzzling over the oddly sympathetic portrayal of the president as a fallible, frightened, sympathetic, and nostalgic man. One can admire the opera’s creators for the sheer audacity of their choice of subject without affirming its complete success. If the creators were unexpectedly sympathetic toward Nixon, however, they were also unexpectedly hostile toward Henry Kissinger, who emerges in the opera as much the most reprehensible character, gleefully seizing the opportunity to enact sadistic fantasies. Chiang Ch’ing is depicted as a fanatic, but she and Mao, like the Nixons, are partly redeemed by their sense of nostalgia for a lost past.

It would be hard to deduce the specific political stance of the creators, given their sympathy for Nixon and the Chinese male leaders and their hostility toward Kissinger and Madame Mao, but the opera holds out hope for the future of humankind based on the kind of diplomatic rapprochement depicted. Mark Morris’s Morris, Mark choreography for the ballet sequence was a masterful combination of energy, grace, and violence. John DeMain, the vigorous conductor of the first performances, was a persuasive advocate for the provocative opera.

The original singers, many of whom served in effect as a repertory company for Peter Sellars, performed with uniform distinction. James Maddalena Maddalena, James gave a disturbingly accurate impersonation of Nixon without degenerating into parody. As Chou En-lai, Sanford Sylvan Sylvan, Sanford remained weighty, eloquent, and serene throughout the production. Carolann Page Page, Carolann was appealing as the vulnerable Pat Nixon, and Trudy Ellen Craney Craney, Trudy Ellen was impressive in the most demanding vocal role, that of Madame Mao.

Adams had offered a glimpse of the music for Nixon in China by releasing in advance of the opera’s premiere a twelve-minute sample called “The Chairman Dances,” which hints at the foxtrot that Mao and Chiang dance in their concluding reverie. This selection, which subsequently became a popular concert piece, was premiered by Lukas Foss Foss, Lukas and the Milwaukee Symphony on January 31, 1986. The lyrical strategy of the final scene anticipated Adams’s later successful setting to music of Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman’s nostalgic reverie on his own finest moment of compassion and love.

The subsequent operatic collaboration of Adams, Goodman, and Sellars, The Death of Klinghoffer Death of Klinghoffer, The (Adams) (1991), which was also conceived as an effort to turn a contemporary historical moment into a mythic event, was widely attacked for appearing to be sympathetic toward the murderers of an elderly, disabled man, and the production garnered few positive reviews. The political repression imposed by Chinese leaders that resulted in the horrifying massacre at Tiananmen Square Tiananmen Square massacre in June, 1989, temporarily dampened American enthusiasm for rapprochement with the Chinese and probably helped to limit the continuing appeal of Nixon in China, which treats the elderly leaders of the Chinese government with sympathy and respect. Ironically, the efforts of Adams and Goodman to appear to be sympathetic to all sides of a political conflict seemed likely to work against the continuing popularity of their operas, as American attitudes toward events in China and the Middle East remained volatile. Opera;Nixon in China (Adams) Nixon in China (Adams) Theater;opera Music;postminimalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, John. Interview by David McKee. Opera Monthly 5 (July, 1992): 3-9. The composer stresses the need for contemporary opera to speak directly to its audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Peter G. “Nixon—The Opera.” New York 20 (November 9, 1987): 102-104. Discussion of the work by an author who offers some of the best arts criticism in American journals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCutchan, Ann. The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak About the Creative Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Collection of interviews with twenty-five modern American composers provides insights into their work. Includes an interview with Adams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockwell, John. All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. 1983. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. Attempts to survey the varieties of creators of serious American music, from serial composers and minimalists such as Philip Glass to computer composers and performance artists. Briefly mentions Adams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. A great critical success, this book shows a superb command of its subject. Covers modern Chinese history to the period just before the Tiananmen massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strickland, Edward. American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Collection of interviews with noted avant-garde American composers. Includes a chapter devoted to Adams.

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