About this Recording
8.669022-24 - ADAMS, J.: Nixon in China (Orth, Kanyova, Hammons, Heller, Opera Colorado Chorus, Colorado Symphony, Alsop)

John Adams (b. 1947)
Nixon in China

Opera in Three Acts

Music by John Adams
Libretto by Alice Goodman (b. 1958)

Richard Nixon - Robert Orth
Pat Nixon - Maria Kanyova
Henry Kissinger - Thomas Hammons
Mao Tse-tung - Marc Heller
Madame Mao (Chiang Ch’ing) - Tracy Dahl
Chou En-lai - Chen-Ye Yuan
1st Secretary (Nancy T’ang) - Melissa Malde
2nd Secretary - Julie Simson
3rd Secretary - Jennifer DeDominici

Opera Colorado Chorus
Douglas Kinney Frost, Chorus Master
Colorado Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

© Copyright 1987 by Hendon Music Inc., a Boosey & Hawkes company
Reprinted by permission
Setting: Peking; February 21–27, 1972


Few operas written in the last quarter of the twentieth century have withstood the test of time to remain as musically and dramatically vibrant today as they were at their premières. Nixon in China is one of a handful of contemporary American operas to achieve celebrity status, having multiple performances during its 1987 première co-commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, The Brooklyn Academy of Music and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Through subsequent decades it has been performed nationally and internationally in both concert and fully-staged productions. Now, stage director James Robinson has created a new production of this timeless work presented by Opera Colorado in 2008, co-produced with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Portland Opera, Minnesota Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre and Houston Grand Opera.

Opera Colorado selected this monumental work to be part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration and presented it at Denver’s new Ellie Caulkins Opera House during the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention. Opera Colorado worked closely with James Robinson to assemble an internationally recognized cast including Thomas Hammons (Henry Kissinger) from the world première cast of 1987, Robert Orth (Richard Nixon), Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon), Marc Heller (Mao Tse-tung), Tracy Dahl (Chiang Ch’ing), and Chen-Ye Yuan (Chou En-lai). Conducting superstar Marin Alsop led the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. This new live recording was inspired by Marin Alsop’s dedication to performing and promoting major twentieth century works, and produced as a result of the co-operative efforts of Opera Colorado and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Association.

At the heart of the success of Nixon in China is the artistic genius of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman. Early in the creative process, John and Alice held meetings in Washington, D.C. to pore over back issues of news magazines, and tapes of television newscasts and other media coverage surrounding the historic seven days (21–27 February 1972) that brought together President Richard M. Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The result of these research sessions was the construction of a highly dramatic work whose fabric is a colorful weave of actual events and an intimate look at the personalities of the individuals involved.

John Adams is considered one of America’s most admired and respected composers of works spanning the operatic, symphonic, choral and chamber music genres. Influenced by minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams has created a distinct style of composition that imaginatively uses the restricted harmonic vocabulary and steady pulse that became the hallmarks of the minimalist movement. Adams has an uncanny talent for recognizing the dramatic possibilities of continually repeating melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and knows exactly when to alter those compositional elements to reflect the dramatic action of each scene. These alterations can sometimes be jarring and at other times be as subtle as to be almost imperceptible.

Librettist Alice Goodman spent painstaking hours collecting translations of Mao’s poems, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, photographs and literary works such as Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, Agnes Smedley’s biography of Chu Teh, and the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, to name a few. Out of this vast research came an epic libretto imbued with eloquence of thought and feeling, giving voice to each character in a highly individualistic way. Through her beautifully crafted couplets, Goodman has brought a depth of meaning to this historic event, allowing the audience to experience history in a new and more revealing way.

Nixon in China is constructed within the framework of conventional opera, beginning with a traditional chorus which builds to the entrance of two of the principal characters, Richard and Pat Nixon, stepping down the gangway from Air Force One. The first two acts of the opera advance through a series of dramatic exchanges between characters represented in arias and ensembles re-enacting the official meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, the interactions between Nixon, Kissinger and Premier Chou En-lai, the various speeches which took place at the first evening’s banquet, Pat Nixon’s tour of numerous points of cultural interest, and the performance of The Red Detachment of Women, the revolutionary ballet devised by Chairman Mao’s wife Chiang Ch’ing.

In the final act of Nixon in China, the six principal characters reflect upon the journey that has brought them to this place and moment in time. Through a series of inner monologues and short dialogues, each character probes the past with humor and pathos to reveal a kinder, gentler, more vulnerable side of their nature. The opera concludes with Chou En-lai’s thought-provoking line “How much of what we did was good?”

James Robinson’s ground-breaking production views the historic events through the eyes of the media and the millions of television viewers who were mesmerized by the Nixons’ historic visit to the People’s Republic of China. Collaborating with set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer James Schuette, Robinson brings a sense of shared experience to this new production. The news media footage and historic photos studied by Adams and Goodman become the set as televisions continually loop news footage of the actual events, while the characters simultaneously reenact each event. The effect on the audience is one of nostalgia and revelation. We not only relive this historic event which undeniably changed the course of world politics, but we also have time to reflect and absorb new insights into the significance of this life-changing event and the individuals whose vision made history.

Gregory Carpenter
General Director, Opera Colorado



Act I

Scene one – The airport outside Peking

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 Enlai, 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.

Scene two – Chairman Mao’s study

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.

Scene three – The Great Hall of the People

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.

Act II

Scene one – Mrs Nixon views China

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.

Scene two – An evening at the Peking Opera

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.


The last evening in Peking.

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