Nixon in China is an opera by Alice Goodman, a poet living in Cambridge, England, and John Adams, a composer who until recently was new music adviser at the San Francisco Symphony. The opera was commissioned by four companies—the Houston Grand Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, De Nederlandse Opera, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—and it has been directed by Peter Sellars, who first thought of Nixon as the subject of an opera and who was responsible for bringing together the people who created it. The first performance in New York City, conducted by Edo de Waart, took place on December 4 as part of the 1987 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In a note in the program of the Next Wave Festival, Peter Sellars claims that the opera “honors the human and political complexity of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.” The opera recounts the main events of the trip in a series of arresting images. We see the President’s plane rolling to a stop on the stage as he arrives in Peking. In the next scene Nixon and Kissinger meet with Mao, and they are later joined by Pat Nixon and others at a banquet given by the Chinese in honor of their American visitors. We see an elevated platform strewn with flowers against a backdrop of very long, brilliantly colored shiny curtains on which hang enormous Chinese and American flags.

Pat Nixon goes on to visit a hospital, a pig farm, and the Ming tombs: these scenes, too, make use of vivid images, such as a giant papier-mâché elephant, which the first lady admires at the tombs. The Nixons, accompanied by the ferocious ideologue Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao), attend a performance of a revolutionary ballet entitled The Red Detachment of Women, full of colorful flags and knockabout activity; we are later shown an immense portrait of Mao—at least a story high—whose trapdoor mouth opens to reveal the real Mao standing on a platform.

In the last scene of the opera, on the evening of the final ceremonies of the visit, the Nixons, Chou En-lai, Mao and his wife, and Kissinger walk around or lie down on six empty beds set in a row on the stage—reminding me of the hospital beds (each occupied by an Abraham Lincoln) used by Robert Wilson in The CIVIL warS. Kissinger queasily asks directions to the toilet and never returns, while the rest of the characters reminisce on the events of their youth—the Long March or, in Nixon’s case, World War II in the Pacific.

Mr. Sellars’s set designer, Adrianne Lobel, has created some strong effects, such as the airplane, The Spirit of ’76, and the portrait of Mao, but some of her ideas do not work very well, such as a scene in the second act in which the characters find themselves in what looks like a giant Tiffany lamp. The costumes and the lighting of the stage, especially the use of lurid DeMille Technicolor, keep the production from stagnating; so does the direction by Peter Sellars, who tries hard to maintain a continuous movement on the stage, as when, in the meeting between Nixon and Mao, Mao and his three secretaries open and close their upraised palms one after the other. A number of the singers fail to pronounce their words clearly, and many in the audience had to follow the opera with a libretto. John Duykers, who sang the part of Mao, seemed to lunge after his notes in a distressing, strangulated way, in the style of the unfortunate cravatenor, whose tie, as the epithet suggests, was too tight.

But the main difficulties with Nixon in China have to do with its intentions, and with its music. Even Sellars could not surmount the weak literary and musical materials of the opera, and indeed sometimes he could do no more than use familiar director’s tricks, like parading little children up and down the stage, to keep the attention of the audience.

Nixon in China has some comic moments, but it clearly is not intended as a comic opera or a satire. Peter Sellars believes that “you can really do Oedipus-level work with Nixon, whose paranoia is his tragic flaw. There is the range of human foible in him that you find in the great Greek characters.” Alice Goodman has stressed in interviews that when she first decided to collaborate with Sellars on the opera she stipulated that she would not write a satire. The work, she said, would be “an heroic opera—that would be the character of the work—and an opera of character—that had become inevitable—and the heroic quality of the work as a whole would be determined by the eloquence of each character in his or her own argument.”


In this conception, one gathers, a heroic opera is meant to be about history-making men or women—not necessarily those we admire—in conflict with one another or forced to choose between the demands of different duties or desires. The authors of such an epical and “heroic” treatment of historical personages have no obligation to recount the historical events as they occurred, only to re-create dramatically the behavior and character of the people involved. We are to be shown historical personalities creating events and redirecting historical forces, as we are in operas like Boris Godunov and Don Carlo. John Adams, for his part, believes that opera today has “lost its relevance to our experience”; it is out of touch, and “we hardly need another opera on a Shakespeare play or a Greek myth.” Great modern political figures like Nixon and Mao, and Kennedy and Stalin, are “the mythological characters of our time. We don’t respond to Orpheus or to the Homeric myths the way that people in Sophocles’ time did.” Adams has also read Carl Jung and supposes that “the subconscious of our culture is really more profoundly affected by myths of the great world figures, and in Nixon and Mao I was able to identify very strong archetypes.”

Judged as a heroic opera, Nixon in China is not a success, however, because what makes its characters heroic is not explained or even illustrated. Nixon—who was very well mimicked by James Maddalena—is especially foggy as a character. Nixon, of course, is a puzzling and complicated figure who is a rich subject both of comedy and of (qualified) admiration. His rigidity, his lack of charm, his pettiness and vindictiveness in his relations with other politicians and with those he has regarded as his enemies, need to be balanced by some sense of his achievements in foreign policy, his canniness in improving relations not only with China but with the USSR, as well as his support for such measures as a guaranteed annual income. Nixon is neither a monster nor a clown, although he is partly both. But neither dimension of Nixon is effectively conveyed in this opera. The stick figure of political cartoons—earnest, gawky, perspiring, jealous of Kissinger, half-crazy—makes its appearance here, but not much of his intelligence or resilience, and we leave the theater without any sense of how such an awkward man could possibly have altered history in the way he is supposed to have done in this “heroic” opera.

Pat Nixon is another caricature—predictably virtuous, haunted by the poverty of her childhood and by memories of slipcovers, and longing to be home in California. (When she is shown an operation in a “People’s Clinic,” she says, “Ouch!”) Mao is a dignified paper cutout; nothing in his character as conceived by Goodman suggests the political dexterity, personal power, and feeling (or lack of it) that he must have possessed.

Chou’s is a more effective portrait of a reflective, exhausted bureaucrat who has painfully subordinated himself to the thinking and feeling of the revolution he helped to create. But neither he nor Mao has the weight or depth that can only be re-created with the help of details, such as are recounted in Kissinger’s memoirs (which The New York Times reported “annoyed” the authors of Nixon in China by their “verbosity”). Kissinger is shown in the opera as a buffone, hamming it up and drooling over girls; by flattening and distorting his character in this way the authors of this “heroic” opera do little to “honor” the “human and political complexity,” as Sellars put it, of the China trip.

It is true that Goodman has put into her libretto a number of historical details—such as the comment of Mao that he preferred calculable right-wing leaders like Nixon and Heath to indecisive liberals—but since she gives no clear view of what her characters were like and what they actually accomplished, and altogether too little sense of how they expressed themselves and reacted to one another, these details do not produce a convincing picture or view. In an opera like Boris Godunov, we really do get a sense of people representing historical forces and struggling with one another to accomplish conflicting ends. There are no doubt serious simplifications of history in that opera, but it succeeds as an imaginative rendering of history: we leave it having grasped something, for example, of the contest between the Ruriks and the Romanovs, or of the relation of Boris to Ivan the Terrible; we learn something of how Boris became the czar, and how he was challenged by a pretender, the “false Dimitri”; and we learn something of medieval Russian imperial society, not just of the court circle of boyars but also of ordinary Russians—policemen, innkeepers, monks, a village idiot. The characters in Boris, and the historical forces they represent, have struggled with one another before our eyes, we feel, but in Nixon in China nothing like this occurs. The history conveyed in the opera is largely reduced to speculative psychologizing. The authors concentrate on the inner moods, images, and feelings of Nixon, Mao, and the other characters, and are content to allude in an oversimplified way to most of the other historical forces that had a part in bringing Nixon to China.


Most of the main characters tend to speak in the same poetic tone, or to talk at one another. The promotional literature given out by the Brooklyn Academy of Music states that the meeting between Nixon and Mao contains a “beautiful exchange” between them on “their views of economics and freedom.” This exchange, so far as I could identify it, is neither beautiful nor informative, but it illustrates well enough the unsatisfactory way in which the opera has been conceived and written. In the scene in question, Chou says,

The current trend
Suggests that China’s future might

NIXON: Might break the Futures Market.
MAO: That
Would be a break. No doubt our plunge
Into the New York Stock Exchange
Will line some pockets here and there.
Will these investments be secure?
No. Not precisely.

NIXON: There’s the catch.
You don’t want China to be rich.

MAO: You want to bring your boys back home.

NIXON: What if we do? Is that a crime?

A few lines later Nixon asks, “Where is the Chinese people’s faith?” and Mao replies,

The people’s faith? Another myth
To sell bonds. It’s worked well for you.
The people are determined to
Divide the land to make it whole.
Piercing the broken Golden Bowl
The world to come has come, is theirs,
We cried, “Long live the Ancestors!”
Once, it’s “Long Live the Living!” now,

to which Nixon replies, “History holds her breath.” We do not learn how the meeting between Nixon and Mao came about, or what motives the two leaders had for seeing each other. The relationship between Mao and Chou is not clarified, nor is Mao’s pathetic wish to prevent the revolution from hardening into a new bureaucracy. The Soviet Union, whose ambitions played such an important part in the thinking of both American and Chinese leaders, is hardly mentioned in the libretto.

It is indeed occasionally difficult to distinguish simple-minded satire or ridicule from “heroic opera” as the authors of Nixon in China write it. The opera’s second act, for example, is a long and baffling piece of futility. Until then, the audience may have satisfied itself that it was witnessing a “straight” version, no doubt highly condensed and even distorted, of what went on when the Nixons visited China. Now in the second act, that expectation collapses and the tone of the opera changes entirely. A main character in the revolutionary ballet turns out to be Dr. Kissinger, dressed as the factotum of an evil capitalist landlord named Lao Szu. In this part, Kissinger is sexually over-heated, corrupt, and murderous. His goons have chained a lovely young peasant rebel to a stake. Kissinger stands before her, thrusts his hips outward obscenely, and says,

That luscious thigh
That swelling breast
Scented and greased,
A sacrifice
Running with juice
At my caress.
She was so hot
I was hard-put
To be polite

—and so on, none of it very funny.

Then like the stock figure in the audience of Oedipus Rex who leaps up from his seat and runs to the stage to try to rescue the king from self-mutilation, Pat Nixon intervenes in the ballet and tries to prevent the young girl from being whipped further by Kissinger. No explanation is given by the authors in their statements about the opera for these gratuitous absurdities, and even the opening night audience—attended by the usual claques and enthusiasts of the “new”—did not know quite what to make of them. They certainly were quite lost when Madame Mao, in an expansive mood, was made to say that “at the breast of history I sucked and pissed” or boasted to Mao as they began to dance in front of the Nixons, “We’ll teach these motherfuckers how to dance!” and instructed the orchestra, “Hit it, boys!”

John Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, has been described as a musical “minimalist,” but this term has come to mean very little. It is no longer at all clear what it means to be “minimal” in music—fewness of notes? of instruments? of tempi or keys? Many claims for minimalism—for example, that stringently simple musical means can be used to create works of beauty and complexity—are true in a trivial sense. Perhaps the time has come for the term to be set aside.

Adams admits that the music of the opera sounds “familiar,” but insists that it conceals what he calls “great psychological and musical complexity.” His music is called “tonal,” “melodic,” “expressive.” Like Philip Glass, whose music Adams’s too much resembles, he likes to create vibrating pulse-music, in which groups of strings or winds play simple, brief motives in one variation after another and in ceaselessly changing rhythms and keys. At its best this music is reminiscent of the kind of engine music Stravinsky put in his Symphony in Three Movements and even in the fair scene in Petrushka. Unlike some other “minimalists,” however, Adams is a skillful orchestrator; he also has a flair for surprising, dramatic effects. He is able to create a smooth, opulent surface; and able, too, to make old musical points in pleasing, luxurious ways. His talent as a musical colorist is evident in parts of his orchestral works Harmonielehre and Christian Zeal and Activity (until it is interrupted, and ruined, by a recording of an evangelist repeating religious platitudes). Adams has no remarkable gift for vocal writing, however, and there is almost nothing in Nixon in China to match his purely orchestral music.

The opportunities for young composers to earn a living today are so few that one cannot blame any of them for trying to pick up money where they can. If a composer has neither rich parents nor a rich wife, he is usually forced to live on rarely bestowed prizes, lecturing, journalism, performing his own or others’ work, or teaching. The rarest source of income remains that of royalties and performance fees for his music. Opera can be the source of a great deal of money for a composer if the work is a success and it is performed repeatedly. One feels in listening to it that Nixon in China represents a real, if occasionally somewhat obvious, effort on the part of its composer to obtain a wide audience; and it does seem to be a commercial success.

But there is something that is not worked through in this and in the other music of John Adams. Certainly his music is fluent and has a stylish surface. But it does not seem to contain many new ideas—fewer, it seems to me, than are found in the ingenious music of the so-called first generation of minimalists such as the composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich, who know how to vary their rhythms and themes in ways that remain exciting and imaginative. There is still much in Adams’s music that sounds like that sing-song toy music of early minimalism—the musical equivalent, really, of a child tracing a figure eight in the sand with a stick over and over again—and one glimpses something of the silly philosophy behind this kind of music when one reads an interview in which Adams says that when he listens to Sibelius’s “greatest symphonies. I find that I don’t know where I am…and that’s a nice feeling.”

In another mood Adams indulges in other styles, writing, for example, anxious academic music in the style of nineteenth-century expressionism, marked by long musical lines and overblown, humorless, and unedited orchestral explosions recalling Lulu and Salome, and bearing pretentious titles like The Anfortas Wound. Some of this music is worth hearing. But none of these different styles or approaches—flawed as each of them may be—has been satisfactorily brought together in Adams’s music, at any rate not in Nixon in China. He does not seem to have found a suitable voice or the musical materials in which to express himself, and he alternates uneasily between adventurous and complex harmonies and rhythms on the one hand and what Philip Glass has called the “populist” idiom of “minimalism” on the other. What we hear is colorful but not especially challenging—coquettishly playful, polite, alluding excessively to the work of other composers. One feels that the composer has not done much more than create a pleasing pastiche, not only of the ideas of “minimalists,” but also of those of Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky, and others. This kind of music, like its analogue in so much of contemporary architecture, runs the risk of becoming decor; and this risk is strengthened when it is combined with the other elements of Nixon in China—its comic-strip imagery and glossy colors and its snapshot version of history—so many of which seem torn out of the pages of fashion magazines.

Copyright © 1987 Martha Swope

This Issue

January 21, 1988