Opera Profile: John Adams’ ‘Nixon In China’

By David Salazar

There aren’t all that many 20th century operas that have had the resounding success of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.”

The opera had its world premiered on Oct. 22, 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera in a production by Peter Sellars, a frequent collaborator of the composer.

Adams’ opera is unique in how it utilizes a large saxophone section, additional percussion, and even an electronic synthesizer.

While initial reviews for the work were mixed, the opera has thrived around the world, and the critical response has changed significantly, with The Guardian calling it a “Genuine Contemporary Opera.”

Short Plot Summary

Nixon’s Spirit of ’76 aircraft touches down on the Peking Airport, where he arrives with his wife and Henry Kissinger. He is met by the Chinese premier Chou En-lai.

The group heads over to Mao’s study and after discussions in front of reporters, they head to the Great Hall of the People for a Toast. Nixon says, “ “Everyone, listen; just let me say one thing. I opposed China, I was wrong.”

Pat Nixon tours the city and is captivated by children at a school. She envisions a peaceful future at the Summer Palace. Meanwhile, the Presidential party heads over to the Peking Opera for a performance of “The Red Detachment of Women.” Pat Nixon, deeply moved by the show, rushes onstage to help a peasant women girl that she thinks is being attacked. This draws a negative reaction from Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s wife.

In the final act, the chief protagonists muse on their past experiences and consider the future.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording from the English National Opera; the score appears on screen for you to follow.


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