Who’s conducting whom here?
With his NIXON IN CHINA, John Adams brought international politics to the stage of opera. 36 years on from its world premiere the work has at last arrived in Berlin – and is arguably more topical than ever.
Mr Adams, NIXON IN CHINA premiered 36 years ago. How do you view your opus with decades of hindsight?
With a very warm glow. Alice Goodman’s libretto has lost none of its timeless political and philosophical wisdom, in my mind. And then there’s the humour. When NIXON IN CHINA aired for the first time in 1987, there was this assumption that it was a satire.
So NIXON IN CHINA isn’t satirical?
Because the opera’s about Nixon, some directors mistakenly stage it as satire, but if you ask me, they’re not the best productions. They gloss over the emotional depth of the text and the philosophical insights it offers. The biggest challenge is getting the balance right between humour and gravity. Not so easy.
Why did you write the opera in the first place?
It wasn’t just this encounter between the leaders of the two main social models that interested me; it was also the two different philosophies that Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon represented: liberal, capitalist democracy with its belief in market forces on the one hand and the Communist welfare state on the other. In retrospect, neither system seems to have worked perfectly.
China has changed almost beyond recognition.
The US has, too. Although, yes, the changes in China have been starker. Back then the country was agrarian and poor – now it’s the second largest economy in the world. All that has very little to do with Maoism. The most worrying thing about China for me is the zealous way it keeps the people under digital surveillance. Not that that doesn’t happen in the West, but at least here our private details don’t get funnelled straight to the government.
Let’s discuss the music. How do you view the score with hindsight? How has your musical language changed since 1987?
I still like the music too, and I try to conduct a production once every five years or so, which keeps my hand in. The minimalist influence is clearly audible, more so than in my later works, although even then not as obvious as in pieces by Steve Reich or Philip Glass. There are big band elements and the imitational da capo arias of Madame Mao. The opera is a hybrid and over the years this is the direction I’ve been going, aiming for a more varied and complex musical language.
What’s your opinion of minimal music nowadays?
Minimalism is a big thing for me and my generation. It led to a lot of new stuff and paved the way for a new musical language. But as with any artistic revolution, you have to keep evolving. Cubism, for instance, changed people’s attitude to art, but it was good that Picasso and Matisse took it forward.
NIXON IN CHINA has so far not featured prominently on European programmes, but five separate productions are being mounted in 2024 alone. How do you account for this late success?
There are such things as slow burners. American minimal music has had a hard time of it in Europe, especially in France and Germany. Some critics considered what we were doing to be unintellectual, too uniform and vanilla compared to the European avant-garde. The theorists came to their elitist assessment quite quickly, but even in those circles attitudes are gradually softening.
Can classical music help bring about social and political change, in your opinion?
That’s a big issue in America right now. Here it’s almost impossible now to get funding for a project that’s not about racism, gender or social injustice. I don’t think art has that much influence on people’s politics. Artists who take a political stance in their work tend to be preaching to the converted. And at the risk of sounding a little cynical: Bach’s »Goldberg Variations« would probably be passed over for funding if he were composing today.