Nixon in China
AN OPERA by John Adams
John Adams’ Nixon in China is a landmark of contemporary opera. The world changed with President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and the walls between East and West began to crumble. This profound historical event becomes a mesmerizing drama filled with riveting music, striking choruses, and stunning ballets. The political and private lives of Richard Nixon, Chairman Mao, Henry Kissinger, and Pat Nixon set the stage for this masterpiece by the most performed living American composer.
“It is part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues.” (John Adams)
John Adams in CoNversation with Andreas Mitisek
Listen to the live recording of our recent special event
As a child growing up in New Hampshire and having for a mother an old-school liberal Democrat, an active selfless party volunteer, I developed early on a fascination for American political life. The city of Concord, where I attended high school, was the nerve central of the presidential primary campaigns which rolled into town every four years, bringing with them the obligatory discharges of hot air, free canapés, and air-brushed, glad-handing candidates. I shook JFK’s hand the night before he won the New Hampshire primary in 1960, and the first vote I ever cast was for the maverick Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 campaign ultimately signaled the resignation of Lyndon Johnson and the slow winding down of the Vietnam War. So it was somewhat of a natural fit when the topic of Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, capitalism, and communism should be proposed to me as the subject for an opera. The idea was that of the stage director Peter Sellars, whom I’d met–in New Hampshire, fittingly enough–in the summer of 1983. I was slow to realize the brilliance of his idea, however. By 1983 Nixon had become the stuff of bad, predictable comedy routines, and it was difficult to untangle my own personal animosity–he’d tried to send me to Vietnam–from the larger historical picture. But when the poet Alice Goodman agreed to write a verse libretto in couplets, the project suddenly took on an wonderfully complex guise, part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues. All of this centered on six extraordinary personalities: the Nixons, Chairman Mao and Chiang Ch’ing (a.k.a. Madame Mao), Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger. Was this not something, both in the sense of story and characterization, that only grand opera could treat?
Nixon in China took two full years to complete. Throughout the composing I felt like I was pregnant with the royal heir, so great was the attention focussed on it by the media and the musical community at large. The closer I came to completing the score, the more apparent it became that there would be no sneaking this opera out discreetly in workshop. As it turned out, an unstaged sing-through with piano accompaniment done in San Francisco five months before the actual premiere attracted critics from twelve national newspapers and was even mentioned (and sardonically dismissed) by Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News.
To my mind Alice Goodman’s poem is to me one of the great as-yet-unrecognized works of America theater. Her words are a summary, an incantation of the American experience, and her Richard Nixon is our presidential Everyman: banal, bathetic, sentimental, paranoid. Yet she does not deny him an attempt, albeit couched in homely metaphors of space travel and good business practice, to articulate a vision of American life.
The arrival of the Nixon delegation in Act I, a coup du theatre worthy of Aida (which incidentally was playing in Houston concurrently with Nixon) featured an immense replica of Air Force One, the Presidential 747 from which Nixon, Pat and Kissinger descend to be greeted by a long line of identically clad Chinese officials. The second act ballet, "The Red Detachment of Women", a study in agitprop dance, theater and music, was based on a political ballet from the period of the Cultural Revolution that had been shaped and ideologically massaged by Madame Mao. Mark Morris’s choreograpy featured the same absurd images of ballet dancers on point, dressed in the uniforms of the People’s Revolutionary Army and brandishing rifles. In composing for this scene I set for myself the equally absurd goal of making it sound as if it were the creation of a committee of composers, none of whom were sure of what the other was doing. This followed the line of the tradition of creating "people’s" art.
Nixon’s 1972 trip was in fact an epochal event, one whose magnitude is hard to imagine from our present perspective, and it was perfect for Peter Sellars’s dramatic imagination. Nixon in China was for the sure the first opera ever to use a staged "media event" as the basis for its dramatic structure. Even at his young age in 1987, Peter showed a deep understanding for the way in which people in power managed to keep themselves there. He understood brilliantly how dictatorships on the right and on the left throughout the century had carefully managed public opinion through a form of public theater and the cultivation of "persona" in the political arena. Both Nixon and Mao were adept manipulators of public opinion, and the second scene of Act I, the famous meeting between Mao and Nixon, brings these two complex figures together face to face in a dialogue that oscillates between philosophical sparring and political one-upsmanship.
Of particular meaning to me were the roles of the two principal women, Pat and Chiang Ch’ing. Both wives of politicians, they represented the ying and the yang of the two alternatives to living with someone immersed in power and political manipulation. Pat was the ideal, the quintessence of "family values", a woman who stood by her man (preferably a foot or two in the background), embraced his causes and wore a gracious if stoic smile through a long career that could only have seen countless bouts of depression and crushing humiliation. Chang Ch’ing began her career as a movie actress and only later enlisted in the Party, accompanying Mao on the gruelling Long March and ultimately became the power behind his throne, the mind and force behind that hideous experiment in social engineering, the Cultural Revolution. In the music I composed for these two women I tried to go beyond the caricature of their public personae and look at the fragility of each’s relationship to her spouse. In Act II we see each in her public role: Pat is the perfect diplomatic guest, being treated to a whirlwind tour of the city and "loving every minute of it". The shrill, corrosive Chang Ch’ing interrupts the ballet to shout angry orders at the dancers and sing her credo of power and violence, "I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung". But in the final act, the focus of both text and music is their vulnerability, their desperate desire to roll back time to when life was simpler and feelings less compromised. Indeed, all five of the principals are virtually paralyzed by their innermost thoughts during this act. In the loneliness and solitude of his or her own bed, no one can avoid the feeling of regret, of time irretrievably lost and opportunities missed. It falls to Chou En-lai, the only one with a modicum of self-knowledge, to ask the final question: "How much of what we did was good?" (Reprinted with kind permission of www.earbox.com)
John Adams has harnessed the rhythmic energy of Minimalism to the harmonies and orchestral colours of late-Romanticism . He brought contemporary history to the opera house with his post-modern music-theatre works Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and lately Doctor Atmonic (2005). Has addressed urgent social issues with passion and empathy, both in his operas and in such works as I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, El Dorado and The Wound-Dresser. His works are much favoured by choreographers, with multiple ballet versions of Fearful Symmetries. He is the winner of the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Violin Concerto. Adams has a series of recordings on the Nonesuch label. A recent survey shows him to be the most frequently performed living American composer of orchestral music. Adams joins the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the new position of Creative Chair, beginning with the world premiere of City Noir Oct 8.,2009
Alice Goodman - Librettist
American poet Alice Goodman was born 1958 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and attended and graduated from Breck School. She was raised as a Reform Jew, she is currently an ordained Anglican priest serving in England. She was educated at Harvard University and Cambridge where she studied English and American literature. She has written the libretti for two of the operas of John Adams, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. Goodman resumed writing with John Adams on the opera Doctor Atomic, however she withdrew from this project after a year. It is reported that she is now working with Peter Sellars on a version of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.
Goodman married the noted British poet Geoffrey Hill in 1987. In 2006, Alice Goodman took up the post of chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Nixon's Visit to China
"This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge." (Richard Nixon)
U.S. President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China was an important step in formally normalizing relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. It marked the first time a U.S. president had visited the PRC, who at that time considered the U.S. one of its staunchest foes. The visit has become a metaphor for an unexpected or uncharacteristic action by a politician.
In July 1971, President Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing during a trip to Pakistan, and laid the groundwork for Nixon's visit to China. Almost as soon as the American president arrived in the Chinese capital he was summoned for a meeting with Chairman Mao who, unknown to the Americans, had been ill nine days earlier but was at that point feeling strong enough to meet Nixon. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was excluded from this meeting and the only other American present was National Security Council staffer (and later U.S. Ambassador to China) Winston Lord. To avoid embarrassing Rogers, Lord was cropped out of all the official photographs of the meeting.
Improved relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China are often cited as the most successful diplomatic achievements of Nixon’s presidency. After World War II, Americans saw the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorating, the Russians forced communist puppet states over much of Eastern Europe, and China was on the edge of going communist. Many Americans were upset that communists might try to cause the downfall of schools or labor unions. One of the main reasons Richard Nixon became the 1952 Vice-president candidate on the Eisenhower ticket was his strong anti-communism. Despite this, in 1972 Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit China.
From February 21 to February 28, 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai. Nixon held many meetings with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the trip, which included visits to the Great Wall, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. At the conclusion of his trip, the United States and the PRC Governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué, a statement of their foreign policy views and a document that would remain the basis of Sino-American bilateral relations for many years. Kissinger stated that the U.S. also intended to pull all its forces out of the island of Taiwan. In the communiqué, both nations pledged to work toward the full normalization of diplomatic relations. The U.S. acknowledged the notion that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is only one China. Nixon and the U.S. government reaffirmed their interests in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question agreed by the Chinese themselves. The statement enabled the U.S. and PRC to temporarily set aside the "crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations" concerning the political status of Taiwan and to open trade and other contacts. However, the United States continued to maintain official relations with the government of the Republic of China in Taiwan until 1979 when the U.S. broke off relations with the Republic of China and established full diplomatic relations with the P.R.C.
Richard Nixon wrote many books about his international interventions. Beyond Peace is the last of his post-career volumes, addressing the need for the United States to beat the competition in a world transformed by the collapse of the Communist bloc.
Declassified Transcripts of Nixon's China Meetings
The National Security Archive has now completely declassified the records of Nixons conversations. Read these fascinating transcripts here.
At an airfield outside Beijing, on February 21, 1972, a chorus of Chinese soldiers sing a choral introduction. Richard Nixon's plane, the Spirit of '76, arrives; Nixon is greeted by Choi En-Lai; during the introductions, Nixon reflects on the historical nature of his journey and the way it will be perceived by the American media ("News has a kind of mystery").
Later, Nixon and Henry Kissinger meet with Chairmain Mao. Mao, his words endlessly repeated by his three secretaries, discusses political theory and the upcoming American elections. When Nixon mentions Confucius, Mao explains his vision of modern China ("We no longer need Confucius").
At a banquet in honor of the Americans, Premier Chou and President Nixon in turn give formal toasts, which become less formal as the evening goes on ("Ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends"/"Mr. Premier, distinguished guests").
Pat Nixon is taken on a carefully choreographed publicity tour of factories, sights and public buildings. She reflects on the China she has been shown, as compared to the past and future of the United States ("This is prophetic").
The Nixons attend a performance of Madame Mao's ballet, The Red Detachment of Women. During the performance, Pat Nixon is drawn into the action of the play, and the villain of the piece appears to be played by Henry Kissinger. The performance ends with a defiant aria by Madame Mao herself ("I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung").
On the last night of the visit, the Nixons, Mao, and Chou reflect on the personal histories that have led them to this point, includig Nixon's war service and the Long March. As the opera ends, Chou reflects on the historical nature of the past few days ("I am old and I cannot sleep").
Richard Nixon US President (Michael Chioldi)
Michael Chioldi, baritone, known for his "riveting stage presence and beautiful, powerful voice" (NY Times), has performed leading roles across the United States and throughout the world. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1996 with Luciano Pavarotti, and has performed with the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, NYC Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera, LA Opera, San Diego Opera, Spoleto USA, Opera de Oviedo, Spain, and numerous others. Upcoming: La Grand Duchesse with Opera Boston, Carmen with L'Opera National de Bordeaux, France, and a return to WNO for Butterfly conducted by Placido Domingo.
Pat Nixon Nixon's Wife (Suzan Hanson)
Suzan happily returns to LBO, having re-created her Eurydice for the NYC premiere of Orpheus X (Duke Theater on 42nd St) Originally she created the role for ART, followed by the Edinburgh International Festival, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Recent Opera roles: Pat Nixon in Nixon in China (Arena di Verona), Brunnhilde in SiegfriedGotterdamerung (LBO, Pittsburgh Opera Theater), Fiordiligi (Sacramento Opera), The Clever One (LBO)... Opera Companies: San Francisco, Connecticut, Arizona, Tel Aviv, Madrid, Spoleto, Florence... Theater Companies; Old Globe, Denver Center, San Jose Rep, National Tour of Master Class... Recordings: The Tender Land (Koch).
Mao Tse-Tung Chairmain of CCP (John Duykers)
John Duykers has sung with Chicago’s Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Canadian Opera Company and Los Angeles Opera. He has sung more than 100 contemporary operas. He created the role of Mao in Nixon in China. He sang the premieres of Philip Glass’ White Raven, In The Penal Colony and the title role of Galileo Galilei and Paul Dresher’s solo opera The Tyrant. He is a frequent performer with symphony orchestras and music festivals throughout the United States. John Duykers can be heard on numerous recordings including Award-winning CD and DVD of Nixon In China and DVD.
Cho En lai Premiere of CCP (Roberto Gomez)
Roberto Perlas Gomez returns to LBO after last season’s portrayals of the title roles of Motezuma, Emperor of Atlantis, and the King in Die Kluge. He made his Italian debut as Chou en-lai in Nixon in China at the Arena di Verona. He has also performed with San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, San Diego Opera, and Michigan Opera. He has performed his signature role of Rossini’s Barber with many American companies. He was in Manila to create the title role of Rizal in an opera written to honor the final days of the Philippine national hero in the centennial anniversary of his death.
Henry Kissinger US Secretary of State (Kyle Albertson)
Iowa native Kyle Albertson is renowned for his powerful and versatile voice. His recently engagements include Monterone in Rigoletto, Leporello in Don Giovanni, Capulet in Roméo et Juliette, Lindorf/Dr. Miracle in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Bartolo and Antonio in Le nozze di Figaro, and Nilikantha in Lakmé. Mr. Albertson’s other roles include; Geronimo in Il matrimonio segreto, Escamillo in Carmen, Harasta in The Cunning Little Vixen, Duglas in La donna del lago, Count Ribbing in Un ballo in Maschera, the Vicar in Albert Herring, Besso in Giasone, and Henry Kissinger in Nixon in China.
Chiang Ch'ing Mao's Wife (Ani Maldjian)
Ani Maldjian returns to LBO after premiering The Diary of Anne Frank and The Cunning Little Vixen. This season, she sang with West Bay Opera as Musetta in La Boheme, Townsend Opera in The Merry Widow, Opera Santa Barbara as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, and this spring, she will reprise the role of Anne Frank. Future engagements include a return to Seattle Opera, and her debut with Opera in the Heights. She has performed over 25 major operatic roles and earned degrees from Cal Arts and CSUN, with additional opera training at Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, Music Academy of the West, Aspen Festival, and OperaWorks.
Mao's Secretary #1 (Ariel Pisturino)
Ariel Pisturino completed her Bachelors of Music in Vocal Performance at Northern Arizona University. She has performed such roles as Cherubino/Prince Orlovsky/Baba, and Genéviéve. She won fourth place in the Palm Springs Vocal Competition, is a scholarship winner from the Arizona Opera League, and is a winner of the National Winston Scholarship of Arts and Letters. Ms. Pisturino recently graduated from USC with a Master of Vocal Arts, and is planning to audition for young artist programs throughout the remainder of the year. First Secretary in Nixon in China will be her first debut with Long Beach Opera.
Mao's Secretary #2 (Leslie Anne Cook)
Lauded for her performances as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, mezzo-soprano Leslie Anne Cook has performed the roles of Jenny (The Threepenny Opera), Meg (Falstaff), Hermia (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Sorella Infermiera and Una Conversa (Suor Angelica). Ms. Cook’s solo performances with orchestra include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Handel’s Messiah, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Ms. Cook earned her Bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from UCLA and was chosen for OperaWorks’ Advanced Artist program in 2009. Her performances of Nixon in China mark her debut with Long Beach Opera.
Mao's Secretary #3 (Peabody Southwell)
Mezzo-soprano Peabody made her LBO debut in 2009 as The Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen, Ramiro in Motezuma & The Drummer in The Emperor of Atlantis. Peabody received her Master's degree from UCLA in 2008 & her bachelor's degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 2005. Recent roles include Dido in Dido&Aeneas, Dame Quickly in Falstaff, & Jenny in 3pennyopera. She will return this season as Chairman Mao's secretary in LBO's Nixon in China, and she will sing the title role in La Tragédie de Carmen at the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival in July.
Conductor (Andreas Mitisek)
A native of Austria. LBO’s current Artistic & General Director. His recent credits as stage director for LBO are Winterreise, The Diary of Anne Frank, Orpheus & Euridice, The Emperor of Atlantis / The Clever One. He has also conducted a number of LBO productions including Die Schweigsame Frau, Jenufa, Elektra, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Semele, The Threepenny Opera and The Ring of the Nibelung. Guest Conductor at opera companies in the U.S. and Europe. Recently conducted Joruri in Tokyo, Don Giovanni for Seattle Opera, Madama Butterfly for Orlando Opera, American Premiere of Jane Eyre by Michael Berkeley for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Eugene Onegin for Teatro Municipal in Santiago de Chile. He conducted the Austrian and Italian premieres of Nixon in China.
Stage Director (Peter Pawlik)
Peter Pawlik earned his directing credentials at the University of Vienna and became the resident stage director at the Vienna State Opera. His US debut was in 2003 with Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Ariadne auf Naxos. As an authority on contemporary opera over the past 20 years, Peter has premiered several works such as Maschinist Hopkins with Neue Oper Wien and Die Gespenstersonate with Kammeroper Wien. He has worked with such singers as Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, Thomas Hampson, and Natalie Dessay. The Austrian and Italian premieres of Nixon China received much acclaim under the direction of Peter Pawlik.
Set Designer (Wilhelm Holzbauer)
Wilhelm Holzbauer is one of Austria’s foremost architects; has received a number of awards for his enlightened designs; and is a 1986 Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. The Austrian premiere of Nixon in China (1997) was his first set design, followed by set & costume design for the Vienna State Opera’s production of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. His architectural designs in Vienna include many important public designs, such as the pedestrian zone in the Kärntner Strasse; the subway stations; the Ringstrassen Galleries complex; four New Halls of the Vienna Musikverein; Other architectural works include: the City Hall and Opera House in Amsterdam; the reconstruction of the Festspielhaus in Salzburg and the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. Awards include the 2000 Grand Austrian State Prize.
Choreographer (Jenny Weston)
Jenny Weston was born in Oxford UK. As a performer she was one of the original Wild Things in the first opera production of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Career highlights as an opera choreographer include Cappriccio with Dame Kiri te Kanawa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera; L’Enfant and Les Sortileges for New York City Opera; Death in Venice for Vienna Opera Theatre; Dido and Aeneas in Syria; Porgy and Bess at the Pavilion Atlantico Lisbon, Nixon in China for Arena di Verona; and Don Giovanni for Hong Kong Arts Center; Recent work includes Orpheus in the Underworld and Lakme for Opera Holland Park London.
Lighting Designer (Dan Weingarten)
Dan is a Los Angeles-based designer who is thrilled to be working with LBO again. credits include: Rock of Ages (LA and Las Vegas Productions) Romeo and Juliet (Boston Court, Ovation Nominee), The Rover (Actors Gang, Garland Award), Great Men of Science (The Lost Studio, Garland and LA Weekly Award), Catch the Fish (New School for Drama, Winner NY Fringe Festival). Dan recently created the lighting design for the East West Player's Pippin and The Santa Barbara Theater's production of Doubt. Dan is a member of the faculty at Loyola Marymount University. Dan's lighting design for the Long Beach Opera are Schubert's Winterreise, Grigori Frid's The Diary of Anne Frank and Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Euridice.