John Adams' rhythmically rich re-creation of a presidential trip to Beijing has established itself as a great American opera, a work of “clarity, simplicity, shocking elegance” that “will be around for the long haul” (The New York Times). A quarter-century after premiering at Houston Grand Opera under the leadership of David Gockley, this modern masterpiece made its San Francisco Opera premiere earlier this year featuring baritone Brian Mulligan. Lawrence Renes, whose conducting of Adams’ Doctor Atomic won praise from London critics, leads the orchestra. “What commands attention in the Nixon score is, quite simply, melody” (The New York Times). Saturday, October 13, 1 to 4 pm
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s trip to China. Read an article by Kissinger adviser Winston Lord and journalist Leslie H. Gelb in The Daily Beast about this historic, breakthrough event.
John Adams: NIXON IN CHINA
Libretto by Alice Goodman
Richard Nixon: Brian Mulligan
Pat Nixon: Maria Kanyova
Mao Tse-tung: Simon O'Neill
(Madam Mao Tse-tung): Hye Jung Lee
Chou En-Lai: Chen-Ye Yuan
Henry Kissinger: Patrick Carfizzi
Nancy T'ang: Ginger Costa-Jackson
Second Secretary: Buffy Baggott
Third Secretary: Nicole Birkland
Wu Ch'ang-Ch'ing: Bryan Ketron
CONDUCTOR: Lawrence Renes
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA ORCHESTRA & CHORUS
ACT I - The airfield outside Peking (Beijing), China
It is a cold, clear, dry morning: Monday, February 21, 1972. Contingents of army, navy, and air force circle the field and sing “The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points of Attention.” Premier Chou En-lai, accompanied by a small group of officials, strolls onto the runway just as the “Spirit of ’76” taxis into view. President Nixon disembarks. They shake hands and the President sings of his excitement and his fears.
An hour later he is meeting with Chairman Mao. Mao’s conversational armory contains philosophical apothegms, unexpected political observations, and gnomic jokes, and everything he sings is amplified by his secretaries and the premier. It is not easy for a Westerner to hold his own in such a dialogue.
After the audience with Mao, everyone at the first evening’s banquet is euphoric. The President and Mrs. Nixon manage to exchange a few words before Premier Chou rises to make the first of the evening’s toasts, a tribute to patriotic fraternity. The President replies, toasting the Chinese people and the hope of peace. The toasts continue, with less formality, as the night goes on.
Snow has fallen during the night. In the morning, Mrs. Nixon is ushered onstage by her party of guides and journalists. She explains a little of what it feels like for a woman like her to be First Lady and accepts a glass elephant from the workers at the Peking Glass Factory. She visits the Evergreen People’s Commune and the Summer Palace, where she pauses in the Gate of Longevity and Goodwill to sing, “This is prophetic!” Then, on to the Ming Tombs before sunset.
In the evening, the Nixons attend a performance of The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The ballet entwines ideological rectitude with Hollywood-style emotion. The Nixons respond to the latter; they are drawn to the downtrodden peasant girl—in fact, they are drawn into the action on the side of simple virtue. This was not precisely what Chiang Ch’ing had in mind. She sings “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” ending with full choral backing.
ACT III - The last evening in Peking
The pomp and public displays of the presidential visit are over, and the main players all return to the solitude of their bedrooms. The talk turns to memories of the past. Mao and his wife dance, and the Nixons recall the early days of their marriage during the Second World War, when he was stationed as a naval commander in the Pacific. Chou concludes the opera with the question of whether anything they did was good.
Adapted from a synopsis by Alice Goodman