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'Nixon In China': An American Opera Inches Toward Classic At 25

Twenty-five years ago today, Houston Grand Opera mounted the world premiere of Nixon in China, the first opera by a young composer named John Adams. Two days later, The New York Times described it as a "coy and insubstantial work" and "hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory."

But over a quarter century, Adams' opera, based on President Nixon's 1972 peacemaking visit to China, has become nearly as strong a candidate as Nixon himself was. With at least 44 productions so far, the opera has been recorded twice and heard more than 200 times in famed houses in New York, Vienna, London, Amsterdam and Berlin, but also in Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., Kansas City, Mo. and Freiburg, Germany.

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in his award-winning book The Rest is Noise, takes an opposite view of Adams' music, Alice Goodman's libretto and director Peter Sellars' production, calling Nixon possibly the greatest American opera since Gershwin's Porgy and Bess:

By yanking opera into a universally familiar contemporary setting, [Sellars] was almost forcing his composer to clean out all the cobwebs of the European past. Adams also had the advantage of an extraordinary libretto by poet Alice Goodman. Many of the lines come straight from the documentary record — the speeches and poetry of Chairman Mao, the fine-spun oratory of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, the convoluted utterances and memoirs of Nixon — but they coalesce into an epic poem of recent history, a dream narrative in half-rhyming heroic couplets.

Adams said that he wanted to find our own mythology in our own contemporary history. He and Sellars followed with more modern figures in The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic. And Nixon may have just inspired Adams' peers to base operas on contemporary personalities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the subject of an opera by Michael Daugherty) and Harvey Milk (brought to the stage by Stewart Wallace).

The Metropolitan Opera's 2011 production of Nixon in China, with baritone James Maddalena reprising his original performance as Nixon, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray Nov. 19.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.