I stumbled across an intriguing historical nugget on Twitter. This week marks the anniversary of Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China, Air Force One touching down in Beijing, Mrs Nixon in her red coat and a historic handshake with Chou En-Lai. In terms of international diplomacy, tarmac handshakery doesn’t get much more important than this.
At a micro level, this event also inspired what has been one of the most important pieces of music in my life. I refer, naturally, to John Adams and Alice Goodman’s (and Peter Sellars’) Nixon in China.
At some point in the late 90s, my parents bought a holiday house in the Gold Coast hinterland. This was when home internet was still a luxury item and the house was not connected (WiFi was still a long, long time away). With nothing much else to do as a restless teenager, I got into the habit of listening to late night ABC Classic FM. It was on this national treasure that I first heard an extract- I think it was the first scene of Act 1- and my mind was blown open by what opera could be. To use a hoary cliche, a seed was planted. Later, I devoured the piano score in the Queensland Conservatorium Library and bought the CD set, listening to the clarinet lick in the opening chorus repeatedly or the lurching interpretation of the Queen of the Night as Madame Mao bellows ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung’ that closes Act 2. It’s a work that has remained constant in my life, constantly revealing new things about itself. As I learned more about opera as a form, I saw the boisterous Act I closer ‘Cheers’ in the lineage of operatic drinking songs; the storm in Act 2 part of a through line with the deus ex machina storms of Rossini.
George Martin once described the work- which received mixed reviews at its 1987 premiere- as ‘Joan of Arc without the stake’. It’s weird for Nixon to be presented as a heroic diplomat and it must’ve been even weirder for the 1987 audience who were much closer to Watergate than I am. But Nixon’s paranoia which eventually led to his unprecedented downfall is certainly hinted at (‘the rats, the rats begin to chew the sheets’ hisses in like an icy douche in Nixon’s entrance aria). And it’s not as if Nixon is the first operatic lead to assume the flawed-heroics mantle. Look at Otello, even the utterly useless leading men of Rodolfo, Don Jose or Werther.
While I was initially drawn to the excitement, the blaring colour and pounding energy, more and more I find myself drawn instead to Pat Nixon. Apart from the brief comic interlude of her official itinerary at the pig farm (pig pig pig pig pig!), her music has a beautiful melancholy. Her big moment comes in Act 2- she gets one of the show’s biggest solo arias in ‘This is prophetic’- when she rhapsodises on no less than the American Dream. But her American Dream is one of coziness, and intimacy, which sits in muted contrast of the world-changing event occurring around her.
Adams also has created two stunning bookends to the opera- the now iconic opening A minor scales, each unfolding at a different pace, punctuated by plunger muted trombones that open the piece and the breathtaking stillness of the closing aria, given to Chou En-Lai. In ‘I am old and cannot sleep’, the work seems to drift ever upwards in solo violin as Chou questions ‘how much of what we did was good?’. Doubt is momentarily banished- ‘to work.’- and the solo violin gradually climbs over dense yet hushed chords in the winds and synthesisers with a stratospheric chill. It seems bizarre that the work was criticised as tuneless (a criticism that was also, laughably, applied to the premiere of the non-stop brilliant tuneage of Carmen) at its premiere when Adams closes the work with a tune of such heart-stopping beauty.
That steady, calm melodic line of Chou En-Lai has precedent throughout the opera- for all the (then) criticism of monotony, Adams’ characters each occupy a distinctive sound world. Nixon’s lines have an urgency (‘just let me say one thing! just let me say one thing!’) to them, with some punchiness (‘News, news, news, news!’) only ever relaxing into nostalgia at the end of the opera in the Act 3 fantasia of the six leads when he talks about his World War 2 burger stand with Pat. Pat’s lyric soprano is at first a gentle counterpoint in her Act 2 solos, but transforms into shocked emotion during the allegorical ballet and then a sort of drained exhaustion in Act 3. There’s no guessing where Goodman and Adams placed Kissinger on the ‘war criminal or hero diplomat’ scale, with the character not only doubling the capitalist tyrant in the ballet, but being played as a classic basso buffo, complete with modern exit line of ‘where’s the toilet?’.
Of the other Chinese characters, Mao’s high-sitting tenor is strident and confident, in full confidence of the revolution (interestingly, in the notes for Act 3, Goodman specifies that he is the only one who doesn’t appear drained)- best heard in the labyrinth of riddles and word games he lays for his American visitors in the study scene. The parallels with The Magic Flute in the Three Secretaries and Madame Mao are obvious- the close, chattering harmonies of the former and the sky-high, terrifying dominance of the latter.
The term ‘CNN Opera’ was invented for this piece, and later applied to his next collaboration with Alice Goodman, The Death of Klinghoffer. It inspired numerous successors, taking recent historical events and putting them through an operatic lens with varying success. But I think it’s not without reason that Nixon is the only one which lingers on the repertory fringe- certainly the only work from my lifetime which manages it. Indeed, such is its impact two of the opening choruses (and the companion orchestral piece The Chairman Dances) were included on the soundtrack of the spectacular and best-selling 2005 computer game Civilization IV, an honour that is pretty unique for an opera, let alone one by a living composer. Eventually Nixon’s trip to China will be as distant to audiences as the Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra was to Handel’s audiences; but the opera pushes on through the strength of its characterisation and some damn fine tunes.