The New Statuman': view of Nixon's meeting with Mao in
February in 1972
When composer John Adams called .N'ixon in ('liinu ‘an opera for Republicans and (‘ommunists' at the preview performance in San Francisco in May last year. most observers thought he was only joking. He wasn't.
But those who accuse him of delivering no more than a partisan musical docu-drama have chosen to miss the point. With librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. ' who first proposed the project. Adams has created a heroic three-act celebration of an encounter between two men. Nixon and Mao. whose respective ideologies had taught them only mutual fear and hatred.
and yet who sensed that together they could achieve a diplomatic coup which would ensure their own places 3 in history.
i In focusing on Nixon‘s greatest
l achievement. and consciously
i excluding reference to is past
1; excesses and subsequent fall. Adams '.
s and (ioodman present the man at his i highest point. at the centre of what
i Nixon himselfcalled ‘the week that
j changed the world‘. And yet. even
here. he is not a flawless. towering.
! dominant figure. James
i Maddalena’s (baritone) Nixon is
j nervous. eager to please and
desperate to understand the part tnat this venture into the mysterious Middle Kingdom plays in his own destiny. Delighted and yet bewildered by Mao's subtle wit and cowed by (‘hou’s immense knowledge. he fears at first he may be inadequate in such company. ()nly his certainty that he is making history comforts him. It is a crucial moment in the life of Richard Nixon. and one almost of relief. to discover that there are men with whom he profoundly disagrees. for whom he can also admit to feelings of almost worshipful respect.
Following the astounding success of Nixon in (‘liina in each of its three American commissioning venues. Adams has become increasingly confident in his advocacy of the opera's insights and dramatic power: ‘When we see Nixon confronting his own mortality. that‘s a very deep moment for us as A mericans.‘ liarly reactions suggested otherwise; more than a third of the audience for the San Francisco run-through with two pianos and synthesiscr walked out. but when the full orchestration w as heard. first at the official premier in Houston's $70 million Wortham
Theater (‘enter in ()ctober. and
afterwards at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music and Washington's Kennedy (enter. it was received by many as a masterpiece and one critic insisted that within ten years it would be regarded as a classic. Fresh from its liuropean run. .Viron in (’ln’nu will come to lidinburgh a fully-rehearsed production. the singers' voices amplified to ensure clarity.
.\'1'.von in ('liinu has finally established 41 year-old Adams as a powerfully original voice in American music and confirmed his defection from a constricting. yet crucial. school of modern composition: ‘Minimalism'. It has taken almost a decade for him to shake off the ‘minimalist' label he acquired by having pieces like Shaker loops and (irand l’ianola Music (once likened to ‘(‘harles Ives on amphetamines’) recorded back-to-back with works by the high priest of the genre. Steve Reich. Adams readily acknowledges his debts to Reich and other exponents. like Philip ( ilass and Terry Riley. and concedes that much of his music. like theirs. builds on the familiar techniques of pulsation. tonal harmonies and repetition. but he claims that minimalism’s "classic period is now past' and that his own
work owes as much to romantic and vernacular influences: ‘My roots are profoundly affected by American popular music. jazz. ragtime. swing (his parents were swing musicians). and rock.‘
References to these roots leap otit of both .vmm in ( 711m: and the fox-trotting incidental piece. "l‘he (‘hairman Dances' (which has been separately recorded). When ('hiang (‘h’ing‘s long-running propaganda ballet-drama The Red [)eIue/imenl of Women. a stunning reminder of the (‘ultural Revolution. is recreated as the focus of Act II. with choreography by Mark Morris (whose reputation in the l'S. if not his style. is akin to that of Michael
Clark). the music explores the gamut
of ( ilassian pulsation. pastoral imagery. dramatic crescendoes reminiscent of l‘Hlls Hollywood with heavy use of brass and thunder. overlaid with flutes and a swinging victory chorus:
The hand grenade
Heals m (he (lies!
Le! I/Ie hear! him!
Le! (he clenched/is!
Striker/1e firs! blow
I’or ( 'liairmun .lluo
’I'lie lyrunl. and
8'l‘he List 26 Aug— 1 Sept 1988