Nixon Returns—and Hits the High Notes





Picture this on an opera stage: President Richard Nixon lands in Beijing to deliver an aria about the mystery of the news industry beaming his story back to the West. Then he receives a philosophical lecture from his host about Confucius—after which Madame Mao enters and promptly freaks everyone out by putting on a violent agitprop play that insults Henry Kissinger. No grand breakthrough comes of the heavily symbolic meeting, and so the main characters all retreat to their bedrooms and wonder whether their efforts to make the world anew amount to anything but a poetic failure. Curtain.

When Nixon in China premiered in Houston in 1987, few knew what to make of this first stage piece by composer John Adams (yes, a namesake of the president, but no relation). With visions of Rich Little’s Nixon impersonation dancing in their heads, half the audience was expecting a shallow, satirical hit job against the 37th president. The other half was probably wondering whether an American composer steeped in minimalism could do justice to the operatic form....

Adams’s Nixon is finally about to get the respect it deserves. On Feb. 2, the original Peter Sellars production of Nixon will debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with Adams conducting....

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