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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

Composer's notes

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

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").