Nixon in China opens to great reviews at Vancouver Opera and heads to Toronto next season.

As of late, there has been a resurgence of interest in John Adam’s 1987 opera, “Nixon in China,” to a libretto by Alice Goodman.  The opera details the visit of United States President Richard M. Nixon to China in 1972, where he met with China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and other Chinese officials.

The work was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, October 22, 1987 in a production by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris.
The opera focuses on the personalities and personal histories of the six key players, Nixon and his wife Pat, Jiang Qing (spelled “Chiang Ch’ing” in the libretto) and Chairman Mao (“Mao Tse-tung”), and the two close advisors to the two parties, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai (“Chou En-lai”). It is composed of three acts. The first details the anticipation and arrival of the Nixon cortege and the first meeting and evening in China. The second act shifts focus to Pat Nixon, as she makes tours of rural China, including an encounter at a pig farm. The second scene includes a performance of a Communist propaganda play, in which first Pat Nixon, then her husband and then Jiang Qing, intercede in the performance. The last act chronicles the last night in China, in which the characters dance a foxtrot, their thoughts wandering to their own pasts.

Composer, John Adams

Musically, the opera perhaps owes more influence to minimalism than any Asian styles. (John Adams adapted the foxtrot theme from the last act into a concert piece entitled “The Chairman Dances”, published before the opera in 1985. In the intervening period, Adams switched publishers, hence the Foxtrot for Orchestra being published by G. Schirmer and the opera by Boosey & Hawkes.) The libretto, by contrast, was written completely in rhymed, metered couplets, reminiscent of poetic and theatrical styles native to China.

Here are some recent reviews for the Canadian premiere of “Nixon and China”:

“Nixon in Vancouver: a triumphant visit” by Elissa Poole (Globe and Mail)

Review in the Vancouver Straight by Janet SmithFrom the Vancouver Sun

Nixon in China coming to Toronto for 2010/11 season

Several years ago, John Adam’s work, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” touched me deeply following the 2001 September 11 attacks.  The work deserves a mention, due to its juxtaposed palate and the type of sound that is unmistakably recognized with Adams. Adams began writing the piece in late January 2002 for a requested tribute for September 11. The music was premiered by the New York Philharmonic on 19 September 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall. It is approximately 25 minutes long. In an interview Adams explained: “I want to avoid words like ‘requiem’ or ‘memorial’ when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed, I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space.’ It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event – in this case to 9/11 – is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event.”


The title itself carries a certain heaviness of thought and meaning. According to Adams, “Transmigration means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ But in this case I meant it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience.” Adams received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music for the piece. Its premiere recording (with Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus), received the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Its sheet music is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

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