Opera: Nixon in China

After nearly 16 hours of flight, we were beginning our descent into Hong Kong, and shortly I would be setting foot on the Asian continent for the first time. I stowed away my belongings and folded up my tray table. I began to listen to Nixon in China from the beginning as I stared intently out the window. After fleeing daylight as we flew west, the sun was finally catching up and the first daylight in nearly twenty-four hours begun to illuminate the dense clouds we were now passing through. Precipitation had started to collect and slide across the window. I imagined that monumental landing in China by Nixon in 1972.

I want to be respectful of everyone’s present-day opinions and beliefs. My landing in Hong Kong is the closest thing I had to compare to that landing in Peking airport. Whether you consider Hong Kong independent or a part of China is beyond the scope of this humble blog and is an issue I try to educate myself on frequently.

The week before my first trip to Asia in 2017, I attended a performance of Nixon in China at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This production projected historical footage from Nixon’s visit to China above the action of the opera. I was at once captivated and fascinated. I knew little about this historic encounter, and I wanted to learn more.

This opera was conceived when in 1983, Peter Sellers approached John Adams and suggested he write an opera about Nixon’s visit to China in 1971. John Adams, by this point, had never composed an opera before and was hesitant at first but agreed to compose this historical opera. Alice Goodman was invited to be the librettist, and the three set out to examine the personalities of the principal figures and go beyond the stereotypes. During this time, John Adams was interested in the origin of myths and saw an opportunity in this opera to show how contemporary history could have the seeds for a myth.

I can’t help but feel the larger-than-life and legendary presence of these opera characters and historical figures. John Adams did a superb job at illustrating this world event as containing the origin of a myth through the music, which includes elements of minimalism, neoclassicism, jazz references, and big band sounds along with passages echoing Wagner and Johann Strauss. I do not possess the knowledge to have deduced the claims of the last sentence on my own. Still, when I listen and watch the opera repeatedly, I can hear those musical influences, and every time my connection with this opera evolves.

Isn’t opera a fascinating art form? I was going to see this opera once again in person last year, but those plans went out the window. So the next best thing is what I am doing now. Streaming the opera on Met of Demand and polishing off the rest of that Justin Sauvignon Blanc that I started last night.