Composer Profile: America’s Opera Historian John Adams

By David Salazar

Born on Feb. 15, 1947, John Adams is one of the great American composers of the late 20th century. 

He grew up in numerous states throughout New England and began composing at the age of 10. At Harvard, he studied composition and in 1972, he was teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He then kicked off his career as a musical producer, but his career took off in the late 1970s when he established himself as a major composer. 

In sum, he has composed a number of operas, chamber music pieces, film scores, piano showcases, choral works, and other orchestral works. 

He has five honorary doctorates to go along with five Grammy awards. He was also made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. 

Signature Works

Adams has created a number of well-known operas throughout his career, but none has defined his operatic output the way “Nixon in China” did. A work highlighting a U.S. president was a major risk to begin with, and it was further amplified by the fact that it was about one of the more controversial figures. But the opera has been a mainstay since its world premiere and is considered one of the finest operas of the 20th century.  

The opera earned him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition in 1989. 

Read More on Adams

A Look At When He Was Artist of the Week

A Review from the World Premiere of “Girls of the Golden West”

A Closer Look At “Nixon in China”

Watch and Listen

Take a listen to “Nixon in China.”


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