John Adams on first -- and perhaps favorite -- opera, 'Nixon in China'
By Richard Scheinin
Posted: 06/07/2012 03:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 06/08/2012 03:18:30 PM PDT
Nixon in China
U.S. President Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan), left, meets Chinese Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Simon O'Neill) in a scene from the San Francisco Opera production of John Adams' "Nixon in China," Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)
It's been 25 years since John Adams' "Nixon in China" premiered at Houston Grand Opera, invigorating the operatic world. Inspired by President Richard M. Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972, it was Adams' first opera, and it's one he still holds dear. In "Hallelujah Junction," his autobiography, Adams writes that "Nixon" contains "moments that are among my favorites of all the music I've ever composed."
Friday at War Memorial Opera House, "Nixon in China" opens in a production from San Francisco Opera, the company's first staging of what many consider to be an Adams masterwork. Last month, while the Berkeley-based composer spent some time at his cabin in the north woods of Sonoma, I phoned him to discuss the
opera. For the next hour, while watering his tomato patch and tossing a tennis ball to his dog, a pointer named Eloise, Adams waxed about "Nixon in China."
Q John, reams have been written about "Nixon in China" over the years. In your mind, what's it all about?
A I was drawn to it first of all because I think the presidency and politics is really very much at the core of American consciousness. It's certainly been brought home to us in a very rude and plain way that you can't miss during these recent GOP debates, and it will be more evident as this election year rolls around.
And I think there's drama and enormous potential for philosophical reflection, like Shakespeare found in
the stories of the English kings. Of course, you have to do it in this day and age with a certain amount of irony because presidential politics is itself an exercise in irony... what with all the flip-flopping and various candidates trying to conceal skeletons in their closets.
Q Is "Nixon in China" an exercise in irony?
A I didn't start out saying, "This happens to be ironic." He always was a complicated figure, and he never was a likeable figure; I don't think even the people who voted for him particularly liked him. But there was this strange brew of poignancy and sentimentality, and a capacity for truly malevolent behavior -- the enemies list and the horrible things that were on those tapes about blacks and Jews, pretty awful things.
He was a wonderful topic for a composer. We, as dramatic composers, want our characters to be complex, and we don't want them to be all good or all bad. We want them to have the capacity to be noble, as well as wicked and paranoid and ridiculous.
But the problem, in terms of production, is that "Nixon in China" is an incredibly difficult opera to stage, because it lives right on the cusp between satire and the maudlin on the one hand,
and something that's quite visionary and, I think, quite genuinely and uniquely American.
And I think the danger in staging it is to demean the characters; Nixon is so easily ridiculed. You're old enough to remember those late night comedians after Watergate. You remember Rich Little, holding out the peace sign. That's what everyone expected, that it would be more of a cartoon.
And a lot of the initial reviews had a certain puzzlement. I remember the Village Voice saying, "What's the big idea of treating Pat Nixon, the most vacuous person who ever inhabited the White House, as a serious person?"
Q After 25 years, do you think people's responses, generally, have changed?
A I think Nixon now has a better place in people's minds, given how politics has evolved in the 40 years since he visited China. Remember that Nixon used wage and price controls, and he created the National Endowment for the Arts. A lot of the things he did -- if Barack Obama tried to do them now, he would be called a Communist.
I wouldn't have been interested in writing this opera if I couldn't find Nixon's humanity. I just found a photo torn from a newspaper after the death of his wife Pat, and he's crying, and he has a handkerchief up to his nose, and it's an incredibly touching picture. You're just reminded that this was a man who did have a heart, and he was capable of vision and humanity at the same time that he had a really dark and manipulative side.
Q Let's get back to what the opera is about.
A Nixon meeting Mao represented a collision of the two competing visions of how one might live one's life in a societal framework: Nixon representing the market economy and capitalism, all the things that we hear about all the time now; unfettered, unregulated freedom to make one's fortune; and on the other hand, Mao representing communism and socialism, where in its best form, in its most idealistic form, no one goes hungry and everyone gets a chance in life -- and of course all the problems that come with that -- tyranny and control and violence.
Q Pat Nixon and Madam Mao are both terrific characters in the opera. Will you talk about them?
A Pat Nixon is the ideal stand-by-your-man Republican wife, the role of the woman as always standing in the background, but representing core values. Again we saw that very much on display in the recent (primary) campaign, whenever you saw Newt Gingrich or Romney with their spouses. And anyone who ever steps out of the background, as Hillary Clinton did, gets severely criticized.
Q But in a lot of ways, Pat Nixon is such a touching figure in the opera.
A When Pat has her moment, she thinks about homeland, American values and Norman Rockwell images. And the poetry that (librettist) Alice Goodman gave her in Act II is really wonderful poetry. Alice managed to summon up these images that are routinely abused by advertising and political slogans, images of sitting around the living room table. Alice did it in a way that's so absolutely sincere and from the heart; when Pat's singing, you're really able to appreciate those values.
Q What about Madame Mao?
A She was in her younger years a kind of frustrated artist -- in fact a movie actress -- but she gave that up in search of power, at which she became extremely adept. She was Machiavellian, a terrifying behind-the-throne power, a killer. It makes you almost think of the frustrated painter that the young Adolf Hitler was. At the same time, I felt there was always something very erotic about her.
Q The libretto works with that idea, too.
A You know, I conducted "Nixon" at the Met last year, and in many ways really became re-acquainted with it. And I just love the libretto. I love every moment in it. I can't believe there are still people who complain about it being arch or dense or incomprehensible. I think it's just fantastic. Alice caught the tone of the Chinese and the official Communist utterances. She caught the Middle-American tone of the U.S. politicians.
Q How did the music strike you, when you went back and conducted it?
A I was surprised by how minimalist the music is. When I started opening the score again, I hadn't really looked at it or conducted it in 10 or 15 years -- and compared to what I now do, I was shocked by all those bald arpeggios, bar after bar! It's a kind of writing I would never do now. It's not a pure stylistic trope the way early Philip Glass is -- or the way late Philip Glass continues to be, for that matter. (Just two months ago I conducted Philip's Ninth Symphony with the L.A. Philharmonic and was reminded how closely he has adhered to his minimalist technique.) But in 1985 I definitely was influenced and had a great debt to (Glass's opera) "Satyagraha," which I think is a masterpiece.
But I also mixed many other things in it: American swing-band music and Glenn Miller, and when the Air Force One lands on the runway, it does so to a kind of pompous newsreel music with brass fanfares and burbling woodwinds. When the Nixons are hosted by the Chinese at a performance of a Communist ballet in the second act, the music I composed was a sort of satire of the terrible scores these ballets are set to. Because the music to these Cultural Revolution ballets were often written by committees of composers, I wrote something that would sound equally stylistically confusing. So I had some fun with that, writing a ballet that, in the same confused manner as those ballets, sounds like everything and the kitchen sink-- from marching music, to tawdry Romantic swooning to graphic bump and grind.
Q You've written that "Nixon in China" contains some of your very favorite moments out of all the music you've composed. Will you name one favorite moment?
A I still love the "News" aria, the idea of this president coming off the plane, and while he's still shaking hands with all these dignitaries, he's looking straight in the camera and saying, "Look how great I am -- I'm like an Apollo astronaut, landing on the moon."
Q Are you surprised by the opera's lasting power?
A I never would have imagined it. I guess it's the most produced American opera, at least of its size. There's also Mark Adamo's "Little Women." And with "Nixon in China," at one point this spring, there was a production in Kansas City and one in Portland, Ore., and one in Paris. You can see the Paris production online, at the Châtelet, a very sparse stage set.
Q You also wrote in "Hallelujah Junction" that you faced a steep learning curve, while composing the opera.
A I didn't know what I was doing in a lot of ways. I knew (Wagner's) "Tristan..." and the Mozart operas and (Debussy's) "Pelleas...," but I'm not an opera-goer, in general. And Alice Goodman had never done anything of this size. But luckily we had (director) Peter Sellars, who was then maybe 30, and he was already very, very experienced and skilled in opera, because he'd done the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas. And he was famous for those; they were very provocative and deeply thought and felt works.
Peter had a kind of innate dramaturgical sense. You know, a lot of operas are created these days by people -- composers, librettists and directors -- none of whom have a refined sense of the theater. And if you look at a career like Verdis's or Puccini's, you can see how it takes a long time to gain that knowledge and experience; these guys wrote dozens of operas before they got it right.... So I was very very lucky to be able to work from the start with Peter, because I'm sure I couldn't otherwise have created something with the staying power of "Nixon in China" without his extraordinary theatrical genius to guide me.
Some recent productions I've seen of "Nixon" have borrowed Peter's overall design and action, but they make cartoons out of Nixon, Kissinger and Mao and miss completely not only the subtlety of the characterization implicit in Alice Goodman's libretto, but also fail to find the delicate balance between the work's humor and its historical and philosophical sweep.
And now we've done "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" (which opened last month in Los Angeles). It's my seventh collaboration with Peter, after 30 years. And all of them get (performed). "The Death of Klinghoffer" had two different productions this year. "A Flowering Tree" is getting done in Atlanta, and even "I Was Looking at the Ceiling," which was sort of moribund for a while, is starting to get performed.
Q You've told me in the past that you don't consider yourself an all-out opera guy.
A I will say this: The bar is so low on the theatrical aspect of opera that I just can't bear to go to the opera most of the time, because what happens on stage is so terrible. Opera companies hire people who specialize in coming into a city and slapping something together really quickly, and you have the big-name star who can only be there for a designated length of time, and the budget is this and that.... When you think of the astonishing productions and imaginative things happening in theater these days, and then you look at what passes for opera....
And when you look at the season of most of the opera houses, I would say that 50 percent of the operas don't interest me. I'm not particularly a fan of "Madama Butterfly." I kind of like "Traviata" once in a while. But they recycle these things over and over, because they're like "The Lion King"; they pay the bill.
I love Wagner. I'll even sit through a bad production of Wagner, because the music is so wonderful.
Q I'm guessing you're a history buff. Your operas have taken on these big historical themes.
A I'm drawn to opera, because it is such a large canvas, and I think that themes deep in the psyche of a nation can be addressed in a way that no other art form can quite do it. Maybe a really long novel can do it, or a film by a really great filmmaker, like Coppola was in his "Godfather" period.
The thing about opera is that the mixture of poetry and really good music and imaginative scenery -- you take those very potent art forms and you mix them together. And if it's done well, which is rarely, it has the potential of raising the imaginative realm to a very high level. And history has that in it; that was the point with "Doctor Atomic" (Adams' opera, which debuted at San Francisco Opera in 2005). Whether I got it right or not, that story was one of the great stories of 20th-century American history. You had this genius (J. Robert Oppenheimer), one of the great intellectuals of American history, making this death machine....
These are big topics. Who wouldn't be drawn to them?
Q What's next?
A My radar is out. I'm almost embarrassed to say how hard I'm looking. I feel it's what I do best.
Q You mean, writing operas?
A Yes. I enjoy writing symphonic works and string quartets, but I really do feel, if people are going to remember me for anything, it's likely to be for these works. And I really would like to continue this, but I'm just -- you'd be amazed how much I read, looking for the right subject. You know "Doctor Atomic" was suggested by (former San Francisco Opera general director) Pamela Rosenberg, and the moment I heard the idea, I knew it was right. And Peter (Sellars) suggested "Nixon in China."
Q So what have you been reading in your hunt for another opera subject?
A I read this 800- or 900-page book by Tony Judt, "Postwar," a pretty amazing book. And then the huge breakup between Sartre and Camus caught my attention for a while.... And I've been drawn to Arthur Koestler and more lately to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Holocaust survivor who became a hugely influential literary critic in Germany. And just the other day, I was listening to a New York Times podcast, and they were interviewing Robert Caro, who wrote his new volume of the Lyndon Johnson biography, and I went, "Hmmm."
I've been looking for about five years. Of course, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" is virtually an opera, in that it mixes the Passion story with writings by Dorothy Day, the mid-20th-century Catholic socialist.
Q Let's circle back to Nixon. Was there an expectation that he might attend a performance of "Nixon in China" when it first opened?
A Well, here we were, with this opera about all these people who were still alive. And I remember the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) production in Brooklyn (in 1987). For all six or seven performances, Harvey Lichtenstein, BAM's director, had a special section in the balcony roped off, because he never gave up hope that Nixon would come -- which would've been a real publicity coup. I knew it never was going to happen.
Q Did Nixon watch it on PBS, at least?
A I remember once being on the radio with Nixon's White House attorney. What was his name? Leonard Garment. He was on the board of BAM, and he was a big music guy. I guess he'd been a jazz sax player, and somebody asked him, "Well, did Nixon at least watch it when it was on 'Great Performances'?" And he said, "Of course, he did! He watched and read everything that was written and performed about him." This was in the days before you Googled yourself.
Q In any event, you didn't particularly want Nixon and Kissinger in the balcony?
A I was relieved that they never came to a performance. Because my Nixon was a kind of presidential everyman. And I think it probably would've skewed the impression people had of the opera toward it being a personality thing; whereas I was really trying to create a mythic archetype -- which I hope I did.
I think it would have turned it into too much of a media event and taken away from the art.
Q What do you think "Nixon in China" set in motion? People cite it as among the first of the "CNN operas," driven by contemporary news events. There's been a wave of them, straight through to "Heart of a Soldier" last year at San Francisco Opera, about 9-11.
A If we set anything in motion, it was the idea that opera could be about our lives, and it could address very, very large issues of what one might call our collective experience, whether it's the atomic bomb or terrorism or the clash between political ideologies.
Q Any new projects on the horizon?
A First, I'm going to spend some time with "Absolute Jest" (his work for symphony orchestra and string quartet, inspired by motifs from Beethoven and recently premiered by the San Francisco Symphony). I'll work on it this summer, because the string quartet is such a kind of hyper-active and electric medium to work with, and then you add orchestra to it. I think some people might have been exhausted by it. Maybe it needs a little air. I'm going to think it out a bit.
Also, for years, I've loved some recordings from the '60s, for sax and orchestra, particularly this great album by Stan Getz called "Focus." And there's this terrific saxophonist, Tim McAllister, who had a big part in my piece "City Noir." I thought how cool it would be to give him a whole piece. So I'll work this summer on "Absolute Jest," and then I'll do that.
Q Your first saxophone concerto?
A Why not?