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The Operatic Evolution of John Adams: Remaking Opera for Our Time
Thomas May
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Opera America Magazine6/1/2008

Editor's Note:
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This fall — 21 years after launching his career as an opera composer with Nixon in China — John Adams will be taking bows for the first time from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The company will present a new production of his 2005 work, Doctor Atomic. And two seasons down the road, the Met plans to mount its first Nixon, using the original Peter Sellars staging. The latter is where it all began, when Houston Grand Opera took a bold risk on a novice team of operatic collaborators back in 1987.

Adams's arrival at the Met is just the latest in a new wave of productions validating his significance as an opera composer. Following a lull in the later 1990s, Adams returned to writing for the stage with a sequence of powerful works — each utterly unlike its successor — which have prodded the overall evolution of his musical language. Adams's presence in the concert hall has held steady throughout his career, but in recent years there's been a boom of interest from a wide range of American opera companies (with parallel developments in Europe). San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago were co-commissioners of Doctor Atomic, while James Robinson's revisionist production of Nixon in China has made the rounds at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Minnesota Opera, Portland Opera, Chicago Opera Theater and — this summer — Opera Colorado.

When the New England-born and -bred Adams left the East Coast establishment in the early 1970s and headed West to relocate in the San Francisco Bay Area, he could hardly have foreseen the prominent role he would come to play in revitalizing American opera. For all the grim and gloomy refrains we hear about the future of classical music today, the operatic landscape back then was truly bleak. Adams struggled like any other young composer and eventually began to carve out a viable career in the concert hall through his special rapport with the San Francisco Symphony. But he seemed an unlikely candidate for the opera stage. Not only were commissions by opera houses a rarity at the time; Adams himself evinced no particular interest in the genre, per se.

And yet, through the intuition of an outside observer, Adams found himself inevitably drawn in the direction of opera. In 1983, at a summer musical festival, a chance meeting occurred between Adams and Peter Sellars — then an upstart director in his 20s and a fellow Harvard alum 10 years younger than Adams who was just beginning to make a mark with his signature theatrical iconoclasm. Sellars planted the seed by suggesting an opera to be called Nixon in China: a seemingly preposterous tag with its ironic play on grandiose mythological titles like Iphigénie en Tauride or Ariadne auf Naxos.

What Sellars had homed in on was the inherent dramatic nature of Adams's musical aesthetic. Sellars's epiphany came with a 1978 work for string septet (later refashioned for string orchestra), Shaker Loops. Sellars recalls his excitement on hearing this piece for the first time: "Here was music that was genuinely dramatic. Shaker Loops builds up these incredible sweeps of tension and then goes into astonishing release and then adrenaline-inspired visionary states: that is absolutely what you hope for in theater. I realized that this is theater music, which has the ability to build and sustain tension." Here, Sellars goes on to observe, was a harmonic language that "actually took you into areas of right and wrong, where not just anything goes. That was very powerful because drama is always about a moral imperative. There is a right action and wrong action — or there are actions that are doomed to be both simultaneously."

Adams at first had balked at the idea of an opera on "Nixon in China," assuming it would be limited to the sort of predictable political satire that had long since grown stale from Saturday Night Live routines. Schadenfreude over America's disgraced president was no longer exactly cutting edge. But Adams ruminated on Sellars's invitation to collaborate and eventually came to see a much larger set of concerns at work in the historic visit to China: in fact, nothing less than a story with present-day mythic resonance and an iconic representation of the Cold War. When Sellars enlisted Alice Goodman as librettist — a poet he had befriended while they were both students at Harvard — things began to fall into place. "I defy anyone to come up with other librettos written in English that are as brilliant, subtle, funny and profound as what Alice Goodman wrote for me," says Adams.

From the start then, Adams perceived opera as a far-reaching form. "One of the magical things about opera," the composer has observed, "is that it is fundamentally unreal. And because of its fundamental unreality, one can treat the largest issues in life and really tackle the biggest subjects." Despite some differences with Sellars on the issue of drama as a vehicle for social change, Adams shares the director's unwavering vision of an ambitious scope for opera. This is at least one of the essential ingredients that has sustained their ongoing creative partnership — one of the most intriguing and significant operatic pairings of our generation — in every one of Adams's works for the stage since Nixon in China.

Both Adams and Sellars find inspiration in the mythic potential of contemporary iconic figures or events. "I'm not interested in lecturing my audience, in teaching a social parable in the manner of a Brechtian Lehrstück," Adams points out. "What appeals to me in subjects like the Nixon-Mao meeting, or the Achille Lauro incident [from The Death of Klinghoffer], or the atomic bomb, is their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time."

But these are archetypes refracted through the art of opera. Adams long ago grew resigned to the shortsightedness that invented the trendy term "CNN opera" to pigeonhole the earlier works. "It's going to take another few decades for the whole ‘CNN opera' reference to be laid to rest. It's a pain in the butt, but its cuteness will eventually have no meaning." Also annoying for Adams is the idea that his operas are obsessively "political." "All life is political. Does one say the same thing about Mozart or Verdi, who wrote operas about the struggle of one person's will against another's?"

Sellars emphasizes the irony of the "CNN" moniker. "One of the most important reasons to do these operas was to say precisely that we aren't getting the actual history of our times. In the Age of Information we are strangely underinformed about what is going on and what is at stake — exactly because there's a historical blank for so many Americans. [As artists] we have to make a structure which is context rich. Opera is able to go inside to a place where the headlines aren't going. It creates something that is layered, multi-vocal, and intricate and doesn't just produce flat statements. Exactly to find what was not in the news, what was missing from the news: that's why we worked in this genre."

Nixon in China faces the history of grand opera and its forms head on with a pungent mixture of humor, irony, and, ultimately, movingly poetic meditation. Already in Nixon's famous aria delivered shortly upon his arrival ("News"), for example, we get an extraordinarily multidimensional portrait in which both music and text convey a large amount of information about his character. Simultaneously, the aria lays the groundwork for the opera's larger theme of the relation between public poses and private, interior worlds.

At the time, Adams was known primarily as part of the triumvirate of lead
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About the Author: Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater. He is the author of Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.
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