John Adams’ Nixon in China

Scene from John Adams’ 1987 opera

As friends of mine in Beijing know (to the annoyance of some of them, I’m sure), one of my latest obsessions has been John Adam’s incredibly beautiful opera, Nixon in China. It is not new to me; I was channel surfing back in the late 1980s when I came across a performance of the masterpiece on PBS. At the time, I wasn’t interested in any composer other than Wagner, but the soaring vocal line and dazzling orchestration made me put down the remote and listen. And watch.

I absolutely loved it. It was a strange thing; who would have thought Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 would be material for a full-blown opera? Who would think of either Richard or Pat Nixon as sympathetic characters? Yet it works, capturing musically and dramatically a remarkable cast of characters, not to mention the grandiosity of the occasion, the making of history.

I only re-discovered the opera a few months ago, when I decided to buy it on iTunes. The music is essentially minimalist, but with a healthy infusion of romanticism and lyricism. The score is tonal, the vocal line melodic and immediately memorable (unlike a lot of other minimalist music, which can be more about effect than melody). If China is one of your interests, there’s no excuse not to be familiar with Nixon in China.

One aria in particular, “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung,” captured my attention, and it’s now the No. 1 most-played number on my iPod. It takes some getting used to the odd vocal leaps and repetitive melody. But if you can stick with it, I think you’ll agree that “chilling” is the best way to describe it. You can watch the entire scene here, and the performance is first rate.

And it’s not just the music. It’s a pretty perfect synthesis of music, singing, drama, and staging. Take a look at the singer playing Pat Nixon, at first puzzled, then fearful, for a moment positively terrified, then compassionate to the victim of Madam Mao’s wrath. Look at the clash of cultures as she (Pat) walks around the stage watching the unfolding drama with a look of complete disbelief. Look at the hysteria as Jiang Qing holds up Mao’s Little Red Book, her unctuous embrace of the Chinese performer, her haughtiness, her fanatical ideology and the echoing of her words by her automatons, a microcosm of the CR insanity, all unfolding under the serene gaze of a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the Great Helmsman himself.

Tragically, I don’t know the exact story of what’s going on in this scene and the libretto is under copyright so I can’t read the story scene-by-scene. (You can read the words to the aria here, but it doesn’t explain the context.) I want to know why Jiang Qing is so incensed, and what’s up with the guy with the gun. Still, these questions don’t diminish the effect of this clip. Watch it now. Overwhelming. Goose-bump-inducing. Sublime. As I said, it may take some getting used to, especially the cosmic high notes and leaps. But so worth the effort…

There are many other scenes you can find online. This clip of Nixon’s arrival in China is also one of my favorites. To see what I mean about the vocal line, listen to Zhou Enlai’s response when Nixon says he, Zhou, must be a constant traveler. Listen to how, after Nixon’s meaningless banter, the music captures the Chinese modesty reflected in the words, and how the vocal line suddenly soars as Zhou formally welcomes his guest:

No, not I. But as a traveller come home
For good to China, one for whom
All travel is a penance now,
I am most proud to welcome you.

That is vocal writing Mozart would have admired. And the intensity is sustained through every scene. Simply amazing. I used to think opera died at the turn of the century before last. I was wrong. Nixon in China deserves to be remembered as a seminal work, one of the great classical achievements of the 20th century. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the work of a genius.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

Have you seen it live? As a Wagner fan myself, I wonder if this kind minimalist intensity wouldn’t start wearing me down after a couple of hours. But I see what you mean about the “synthesis of music, singing, drama, and staging.” And “chilling” is the perfect word to describe it. That woman reminds me of an ex-girlfriend.

March 13, 2009 @ 9:27 pm | Comment

I’ve seen it live, Boo. It’s an amazing experience, just amazing. I went back and saw it a second time, in fact. It’s been a long time since I’ve studied music, but I think in a way calling it “minimalist” gives you the wrong idea. It’s actually really lush, and the vocal lines are quite memorable – I, uh, can sing practically the whole opera.

Richard, did you get the rest yet????

BTW, I don’t think it spells out Jiang’s motivations for that big aria. You sort of need to know your Chinese history to fully appreciate what’s going on. That was one of the things I loved about the work – the way that it captures these historical characters with what I thought was a lot of empathy and accuracy.

March 14, 2009 @ 3:41 am | Comment

Oh, the guy with the gun – that whole scene starts with the Nixons attending a revolutionary opera with Jiang Qing – which they did in real life, I’m pretty certain. What begins as a performance becomes blurred with the reality of the CR. Pat Nixon gets all upset at the brutality of the piece; Jiang interferes when it threatens to be resolved without sufficient drama and blood.

Which is a pretty apt metaphor (is “metaphor” what I mean?) when you think about it.

March 14, 2009 @ 3:44 am | Comment

Obviously I could talk about this all day. I just watched the clip – that is the original staging from the Houston production, I believe. When they staged it at the LA Festival (where I saw it), that whole scene had been changed considerably. The young man with the gun is gone, Kissinger plays the evil landlord and it’s a lot more dramatic, as I recall.

March 14, 2009 @ 3:52 am | Comment

Boo, it is not purely minimalist – lots of romantic, melodic music here. And it never wears on me. It’s gorgeous.

Lisa, thanks for filling i some of those blanks. I did not buy the whole thing yet because I want a libretto, which you can’t get on iTunes. It is copyrighted so you can’t even get the text on the Internet. I am loving the excerpts, and now I want to get Adams’ other work, The Death of Leon Klinghoffer.

What happened immediately before Jiang Qing stands up and starts the aria? What triggered it? (If you remember.) I would pay anything for a DVD of this.

March 14, 2009 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

Actually you can buy the DVD for six bucks at the opera site linked at the youtube excerpts. I just ordered it. As I mentioned though they drastically changed the second act staging in the LA version.

I think what happens is it looks like there is going to be a peaceful resolution, or the young woman or the soldier in the “opera” hesitates and doesn’t immediately commit a violent act, and Jiang Qing stands up and starts screaming, “That is your cue! That is your cue! That is your cue!” And then the three translators (the ones who always appear with Mao) start singing this great little bit about her heart – “your sacred heart, your precious meat, your sweet REVENGE! Nothing can change without discipline. Nothing. Nothing can change without discipline.”

And then you hear those great chords and Madame Mao begins her aria.

Seriously it’s pretty easy to understand the text without the libretto, and I don’t know that the libretto actually fills in the blanks that the staging does. If you listen to the whole opera from beginning to end I think it will make good sense.

March 14, 2009 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

And as a p.s., I have the libretto – when are you coming through LA again?!

March 14, 2009 @ 2:27 pm | Comment

Lisa, it’s just one of my things – with Wagner, I need not only the libretto but the full orchestral score. Not sure when I’ll be in LA, but it may be sooner than I anticipated. I’ll trade you the libretto for the history book I’m holding for you! I love iTunes, but for really serious music that comes with notes and articles in the box, I still see CDs as an advantage.

Thanks a lot for your description of the action. It underscores just how inane Jiang’s hysteria is. I sooo wonder if something like that actually happened. What I’ve heard seems so faithful to actual history….

March 14, 2009 @ 3:56 pm | Comment

Hey, make some time – we can watch the DVD!

p.s. Yahoo seems to be down. Weird.

March 14, 2009 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

Just want to high-five a fellow Wagnerian.

I have to say, I’ve known about that opera for quite some time now, but have refrained from really checking it out. The idea of familiar people in an opera really kind freaks me out. Take the history more than five centuries back and it would be nice. I mean I enjoyed Met’s First Emperor (though the composition is just annoyingly weird when Tan Dun is not in his Puccini mood). But maybe I’ll check out a Zhou Enlai aria. See if they messed with one of my favourite people of all time, lol.

March 15, 2009 @ 12:25 am | Comment

Jiang Qing’s aria is way more knock-your-socks off dramatic. Zhou Enlai only sings for about 30 seconds in the other clip I link to.

The fact that they’re relatively recent events doesn’t make a difference, at least not for me. I had similar reservations until I actually saw it on TV. Totally blew me away. If you love Wagner, you should enjoy John Adams. After Wagner, there was no place else for Romantic opera to go John Adams shows us there are still wonderful possibilities.

March 15, 2009 @ 1:07 am | Comment

HJG, Zhou Enlai is really the “hero” of the opera, if anyone is. A tragic hero, of course!

March 15, 2009 @ 2:42 am | Comment

Ooooh, I had to listen to it tonight, after this discussion. Reaching the end of the 3rd act. Brings tears to my eyes, every time.

March 15, 2009 @ 4:17 pm | Comment

How nice to discover other fans of this wonderful opera. I saw a production in London a couple of years back. Spine-tingling music and such a creative way to respond to a major contemporary event. Has anyone heard Adams’s new opera, which I think is about the Manhattan Project?

March 18, 2009 @ 12:06 pm | Comment

Andrew, I think it’s called Dr. Atomic.

March 18, 2009 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

I have THE worst Nixon in China earworm now. It goes from Pat Nixon singing: “I squeezed that paycheck till it screamed. There was the rent…there were the DAMN SLIPCOVERS!” to Zhou Enlai’s “We saw our parents’ nakedness. Rivers of blood…will be required to cover them….rivers of blood.”

Oh, that photo is from a recent production in Colorado (I had to check it out while I was procrastinating). Very well-reviewed and I was really psyched to read that Naxos recorded it and will be releasing it sometime this year. I really want to hear what a different version sounds like, as much as I love the original.

March 19, 2009 @ 2:39 pm | Comment

I’m hooked. Can’t stop listening – will have to check the Pat Nixon lines you refer to.

March 20, 2009 @ 12:22 am | Comment

You might not have that part, Richard. BTW, I got the DVD in the mail today.

March 20, 2009 @ 3:50 am | Comment

Let me know if I should buy the DVD. I can’t imagine it being as great as the youtube excerpts, which are about as good as can be imagined.

March 20, 2009 @ 10:28 am | Comment

Richard, the Youtube excerpts are from the DVD. You might as well. Eleven bucks including shipping. Though once again, the staging of the second part of Act 2 was improved in the LA version.

March 20, 2009 @ 11:19 am | Comment

can you tell me the name of the singer playing the role of Jiang Qing?

August 30, 2010 @ 5:51 pm | Comment

Trudy Ellen Craney.

August 30, 2010 @ 9:37 pm | Comment


As a fellow expatriate in Asia I was interested to see that the Met’s productions this year will be shown in HD in Hong Kong. Eleven of the twelve will, at least–and the twelfth, which will *not* be shown? Nixon in China, of course, with Adams conducting.

So I was disappointed but also curious about what your experience had been of the reception of this opera in China itself.

September 27, 2010 @ 2:03 am | Comment

Can you let me know how you learned the HD performance of Nixon in China won’t be shown in Hong Kong? If true, it’s very interesting.

Most Chinese people I discussed the opera with were oblivious or indifferent or both.

September 29, 2010 @ 10:22 pm | Comment

Sorry, hadn’t been back to follow up till now. Here’s the URL for this season, showing the eleven that will be shown.

So, eleven, but not twelve. Rather baffling to me, too.

November 27, 2010 @ 2:44 pm | Comment

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