Music by John Adams
Libretto by Alice Goodman
Richard Tang Yuk, Conductor
Production Support from the National Endowment for the Arts
John Adams’ opera Nixon in China imbues a world-changing political event with the emotional charge more commonly found in personal dramas and mythological stories. Its poetic libretto is set to exciting and expressive music. While this contemporary masterpiece is relevant to today’s political and international situation, it also reminds us that human stories and motivations lie behind all political action.
Sung in English with English supertitlesRead Synopsis
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John Adams’ opera Nixon in China tells the story of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, a politically transformative act that ended 25 years of silence between two major nations. (Full synopsis appears below.)
The opera begins at the tarmac when Air Force One lands in China. Richard and Pat Nixon are greeted by a military chorus singing of “Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention.” Nixon speaks of his hopes for the two countries, uttering a line that underscores a theme of this opera: “News has a kind of mystery.”
As the opera progresses, we are introduced to an enigmatic Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, his power-hungry wife Chiang Ch’ing, the sympathetic and thoughtful Chinese premier Chou En Lai, the calculating U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and three secretaries to Mao. The principal characters reveal their unique feelings about China’s Cultural Revolution, and their own backstories weave together to build a framework of human experience behind the easing of the historic opposition between two world powers.
John Adams sets the story of Alice Goodman’s marvelous libretto to a score that miraculously combines neo-romantic emotion with the pulsing minimalist rhythm of modern life. The score melds European and American influences, from Wagnerian opera to big-band ballads. There are arias, choruses, even a fox-trot – and it all works.
Nixon in China is a work of magnificent musical storytelling, but it also encourages the audience to think deeply about the power of performance and the nature of political speech. It is an opera for our time.
“Sean Anderson’s Count [in the Festival’s 2015 Figaro] dominated the action … smooth, flexible, resonant voice.” – Opera News
“The voice was pure, the intonation absolute. She was a pleasure to hear.” – The Herald Times; “Vivacious!” – Opera News
“He sang … with authority.” – operawarhorses.com; “Clarity of tone, ringing high notes.” – Opera Magazine
“Young soprano Teresa Castillo … imbued the role’s coloratura with equal turns ardor and unshakeable dread.” – Opera News
Festival favorite in Peter Grimes (2016), Fidelio (2017). “Vocally robust … lyrically malevolent.” – Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
“His robust singing is outdone only by his near-maniacal acting ability.” – Wayne F. Anthony, The Toledo Blade
Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, featured soloist with Indiana University’s New Music Ensemble NOTUS.
“Emily Marvosh’s luminous contralto voice glorified all it touched.” – Boston Globe
Has appeared in numerous productions with New York City Opera, Sacramento Opera, and more.
Scene 1: The airfield outside Peking: it is a cold, clear, dry morning: Monday February 21, 1972. Contingents of army, navy and air force circle the field and sing “The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points of Attention.” Premier Chou En-lai, accompanied by a small group of officials, strolls onto the runway just as “The Spirit of ‘76” taxis into view. President Nixon disembarks. They shake hands and the President sings of his excitement and his fears.
Scene 2: An hour later he is meeting with Chairman Mao. Mao’s conversational armory contains philosophical apothegms, unexpected political observations, and gnomic jokes, and everything he sings is amplified by his secretaries and the Premier. It is not easy for a Westerner to hold his own in such a dialogue.
Scene 3: After the audience with Mao, everyone at the first evening’s banquet is euphoric. The President and Mrs. Nixon manage to exchange a few words before Premier Chou rises to make the first of the evening’s toasts, a tribute to patriotic fraternity. The President replies, toasting the Chinese people and the hope of peace. The toasts continue, with less formality, as the night goes on.
Scene 1: Snow has fallen during the night. In the morning Mrs. Nixon is ushered onstage by her party of guides and journalists. She explains a little of what it feels like for a woman like her to be First Lady, and accepts a glass elephant from the workers at the Peking Glass Factory. She visits the Evergreen People’s Commune and the Summer Palace, where she pauses in the Gate of Longevity and Goodwill to sing, “This is prophetic!” Then, on to the Ming Tombs before sunset.
Scene 2: In the evening, the Nixons attend a performance of “The Red Detachment of Women,” a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The ballet entwines ideological rectitude with Hollywood-style emotion. The Nixons respond to the latter; they are drawn to the downtrodden peasant girl — in fact, they are drawn into the action on the side of simple virtue. This was not precisely what Chiang Ch’ing had in mind. She sings “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” ending with full choral backing.
The last evening in Peking. The pomp and public displays of the presidential visit are over, and the main players all return to the solitude of their bedrooms. The talk turns to memories of the past. Mao and his wife dance, and the Nixons recall the early days of their marriage during the Second World War, when he was stationed as a naval commander in the Pacific. Chou concludes the opera with the question of whether anything they did was good.
Adapted from a synopsis by Alice Goodman