Nixon in China is a three-act opera written by John Adams in 1987, detailing former American President Nixon’s trip to Communist China in 1972. The libretto is by Alice Goodman. It is Adams’ first opera and also the first opera ever written based on political events. It was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and it premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. The opera focuses on six figures: Nixon and his wife Pat; Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing; and their respective advisors Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai.
The first act describes the anticipation and the first meeting of the two parties in China. The second act is led by Pat Nixon as she goes on a tour around rural China. The last act describes the last night in China for Nixon and his wife, while the minds of the characters wander back to the past.
John Adams‘ music in Nixon in China is predominantly minimalist in style, with little Oriental musical influences. However, the libretto is written completely in rhymed, metered couplets, in the style of traditional Chinese poetry and theater.
Some of Nixon in China‘s early criticism was negative; a review in the New York Times by Donal Henahan in response to the opera described it as a “visually strking but coy and insubstantial work”. However, Nixon in China garnered increasingly substantial reviews since then; after a 2006 revival in London, The Guardian‘s Erica Jeal stated that “Nixon in China has been arguably the most influential opera of the past 20 years”. Other noteworthy performances in the 2000s include its Canadian premiere at the 2010 Winter Olympic games, which was brilliantly received.
The Death of Klinghoffer
John Adams’ second opera, written in 1991, is perhaps his most controversial work to date, and is set to the true story of the murder of a Jewish-American passenger by the name of Klinghoffer, aboard a passenger cruise liner hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. The Death of Klinghoffer premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 1991, just weeks after the racially-charged Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn. Premiering within this racial atmosphere produced much divisive criticism, with Newsweek‘s Katrine Ames hailing the opera as “a work that fires the heart”, while musicologist Richard Tunaskin, writing in the New York Times months after the September 11 terrorists attacks in 2001, accused Adams of “romanticising terrorists”. However, fans of the work argue that Adams sought to expose the inhumanity of violence in an emotionally charged yet no doubt controversial opera.