Adams, John

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2012 | Stephen Betteridge, Chen Shi-Zheng, Franco Pomponi, Alfred Kim, June Anderson, Sumi Jo, Kyung Chun Kim, Peter Sidhom, Sophie Leleu, Alexandra Sherman, Rebecca de Pont Davies | ARTE Live Web, Live Internet Streaming, 18 April 2012

If the Live in HD broadcast last year of Adams’ Nixon in China direct from the Met in New York around the world served to remind one of the relevance of the work to the advancement of technology and the power of the media that forms one of the main themes of the work - the US President’s visit to China in 1972 broadcast to American primetime TV via satellite to impress the electorate back home - the latest live broadcast of a new 2012 production at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, made freely available for viewing on the internet courtesy of the TV channel Arte, certainly emphasises that point. On a rather smaller and more intimate scale however than the revival of the Peter Sellars production at the Met, it was the power of the opera itself and ultimately its message that came across even more strongly in the new Paris production.

Having recently listened to a number of modern operas sung in English, I was beginning to question again whether it’s a sufficiently musical language for opera. Even with John Adams’ rather more accessible rhythms, it’s not always the case that the English language fits smoothly with the flow and meter of the music, and that’s not even necessarily the case with Nixon in China itself, so it’s wonderful to hear the work sung, as it is here, with such a wonderful sense of integration with the music, and with feeling for the language and meaning of the libretto itself. There is a softer tone to the arrangements played by the Chamber Orchestra of Paris here, conducted by Stephen Betteridge with a wonderful sense for the rhythmic interweaving of the music and the voices, that seemed to bring a newfound lyricism to the sometimes obscure pronouncements and interjections of the protagonists in Alice Goodman’s libretto.


In terms of production design, there’s not really a great deal you can do with Nixon in China, since it is indeed tied to the historical event of an official state visit of an American President to Communist China in 1972, and Shilpa Gupta’s set designs for Chen Shi-Zheng’s production accordingly don’t look greatly different from the original Peter Sellars’ production. There’s no taxiing onto the Peking runway of the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ here - President and Mrs Nixon descend on a pulley to the background of a Great Wall - and the set designs are quite minimal elsewhere (there’s little sign of a banquet at the end of Act I, and no actual beds in the closing bedroom scenes of Act III), but essentially apart from the Red Detachment of Women’s Revolutionary Ballet in Act II, there’s no great reliance on dramatic interaction in the work, the Heads of State for the most part addressing each other and the audience as the people and the watching public.

Leaving the stage fairly clear of props - those that are used are mostly suspended by cables - the production is directed then very much with a choreographer’s eye by Chen Shui-Zheng, often populated with Red Army troops and Chinese citizens of the Revolution who deliver the opera’s fabulous chorus work. And since the opera deals with a visit that is heavily “stage managed”, the management of the stage in this way is kind of appropriate, the effects achieved simply though the use of light, colouration and stage placement of the figures. The Act II ballet, which brings into focus the key central theme of “power fantasy” works wonderfully in this respect, looking marvellous, while also emphasising the delicate blurring between the disturbing reality of the ballet created by Madam Mao and the no less disturbing resonances it sparks off in each of those who view it.


It doesn’t take Nixon long at the banquet in Act I to realise that he was wrong about China, and that although they may appear to be diametrically opposed in ideology, they are united by a common sense of purpose - world domination, or at least an evangelical belief in the mastery of the great over the small that can be achieved through manipulation of the reins of power. Nixon can’t help but admire the cult of personality the Mao inspires and recognises that whether it’s through a little red book or through satellite broadcasts on primetime TV, it’s an effective means of propaganda that appeals as much as to his sense of self-importance as his ideals. Act II’s ballet then represents different facets of this power fantasy to each person watching - on a political level as well as an interpersonal and gender level, the strong dominating the weak, the great demonstrating mastery over the small, individuality powerless against the force of the masses. Act III of course reminds us that each of the personalities involved are all too human and weak themselves, struggling with their own demons and their sense of insignificance in the greater scheme of things. That doesn’t however lessen the influence and capability for long-lasting damage that they can inflict through their beliefs and the image they desire to uphold before the media.


This is fantastic production then of a work that continues to exercise a fascination and meaning way beyond its historical 1970s context. It looks good, it sounds great and it full gets across all the qualities, implications, undercurrents and relevance of the work. Getting the right balance between self-importance and self-parody, Franco Pomponi sings Richard Nixon masterfully with genuine feeling and a wonderful lyricism, but he’s wonderfully supported also by an impressive performance from June Anderson as Pat Nixon. There are a large number of Chinese and Korean singers and dancers here that contributes towards an ethnic realism, but all sing well in their own right, notably Alfred Kim as an enigmatic and impassioned Mao Tse-tung, Kyung Chun Kim a dignified and troubled Premier Chou En-lai and Sumi Jo coping well with the high vocal demands of the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing.

Recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18th April 2012, Nixon in China is currently available, free to view, from the Arte Live Web site.

John Adams - The Death of Klinghoffer

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Baldur Brönnimann, Tom Morris, Alan Opie, Christopher Magiera, Michaela Martens, Edwin Vega, Sidney Outlaw, Richard Burkhard, Kathryn Harries, James Cleverton, Lucy Schaufer, Kate Miller-Heidke | The Coliseum, 25 February 2012

There wasn’t much evidence of anything too controversial in the English National Opera’s premiere of John Adams’s 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, nor any sign of anyone in the audience taking offense at its treatment of politically sensitive material relating to the situation in the Middle East, yet it’s an opera that no American company has risked producing since the furore it caused on its initial run there twenty years ago. But then there are influential groups with vested interests in that part of the world and there’s perhaps not much of an appetite in the post 9/11 America for anything that treats terrorists as real people and could be seen as giving a voice to their anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments.

Relating to the hijacking of the cruise liner the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 and the murder of an elderly disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was shot and thrown off the ship in his wheelchair by the terrorists, what should be evident to anyone who actually listens to the work - and it seemed to find an interested, considerate and attentive audience at its opening night at the Coliseum - is that the opera’s treatment of the subject is actually a sensitive and moving account of the meaningless of the killing of an elderly gentleman that ultimately furthered the agenda of no-one. That is certainly the overwhelming impression that is gained by a viewing of the opera, but inevitably with this particular subject, things are a little more complicated and the event cannot be considered in isolation.


Where however do you start trying to set the background of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into context? How can you do it in a fair and impartial way, and particularly how can you represent it accurately in the difficult medium of music and theatre? The approach taken by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman is naturally very different from the rather more satirical view they took with their previous work Nixon in China, but essentially, using choruses and individual testimonies from various passengers, they employ similar methods of poetic reflection mixed with everyday mundanity to allude to the difficult-to-define larger picture while reminding us that these are essentially ordinary people - yes, even terrorists are people - with their own backgrounds, personalities and human flaws.

The problem with this however, and where the controversy arises, is that not everyone believes that terrorists should be given a platform to express their views or that they should even be treated as human beings. It’s abhorrent - understandably for anyone involved since this is about a real-life incident - that the four Palestinian hijackers should be able to talk about being historically downtrodden, of having suffered hardship and deprivation in refugee camps, should be shown as having caring mothers, and of being capable of expressing future hopes and dreams. Yet, if one doesn’t take the time to consider where their grievances arise from, how can it ever be possible to do treat the subject truthfully? Haven’t recent events - and it’s here that the subject of the opera is shown to be even more relevant today - shown that demonisation simply breeds more terrorists?

Showing the Palestinian hijackers as humans, seeking to provide a balanced view of terrorists on one side and innocent captives on the other, and to do so on equal terms, is a difficult enough undertaking and a risky one for such a sensitive topic, but what makes The Death of Klinghoffer an even more complicated prospect is the medium of opera itself. Music is apolitical and one of the most human of arts - it doesn’t take sides. As if it’s not controversial enough to allow the terrorists to state their case, John Adams scores their situation here with some of the most beautiful music he has ever composed. The subject is an uncommon one for opera and Adams rises to the challenge of finding a inventive means of expression, far beyond the relatively more simple rhythms of his earlier minimalist works.


Music may be apolitical, but words are another matter. Alice Goodman’s libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer however seeks to find balance in allowing both sides to express their views. That’s not as simple as it sounds and the method is accordingly difficult to define, switching between rousing expressions of cultural and national identity in choruses of historical reflection, to dealing with the practicalities and horrible banality of being in the present-time of the hijacking, with reflective outlooks on the future that both the terrorists and the passengers hope to see beyond their current situation. As much as the individual viewpoints of the events are important, it’s the soaring choral arrangements that underpin the work however, taking the divisions beyond the merely political, the Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews that open the opera superseded by Chouses of Day and Night and the Ocean and the Desert - a larger perspective that takes the work to different levels.

Tom Morris’s set design has quite a challenge in reflecting all these varied viewpoints and grander concepts, but it manages relatively well. The importance of the imagery of land and sea means mixing the sand of the desert onto the desk of a ship, but as well as allowing for those theatrical shifts in location and between memory and present, it also succeeds in bringing them together. Extensive use is made of projections, just as successfully, allowing the complex musical and lyrical imagery and the concepts to be expressed in visual theatrical terms that are not strictly literal. The simple proof of the effectiveness of the production design is in how it supports the delicate equilibrium of the work itself. The human predicament of the Captain of the Achille Lauro, the shocking fate of Leon Klinghoffer, the nightmare endured by his wife and their fellow passangers all come across with immediacy, while around them, in the dancing, in the projections, and in the choruses, the wider significance of it all is brilliantly expressed.

Just as with the score itself, the outstanding contribution to the success of The Death of Klinghoffer and the solid foundation that it is built upon, comes though the chorus work, and the Chorus of the English National Opera were in magnificent voice on this first performance of the work at the Coliseum. The orchestra under Baldur Brönnimann captured the vast, complex lyrical sweep of Adams’ score just as effectively as some of the more discordant arrangements (I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard electric drums in an opera score and the effect is strangely and no doubt intentionally unsettling). With strong choreography for the dance, as well as stage arrangements for the scenes of on-board terrorism, the sensitive but impactful treatment over the actual on-stage killing of Leon Klinghoffer was only emphasised by the fine performances of the main cast, notably from Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer and Alan Opie as Leon.

If anyone goes into The Death of Klinghoffer with any doubts or suspicions about where the sympathies of the work and the creators might lie, those apprehensions are quickly dispelled by the sensitive and moving portrayal that the work and these performances give to the figures of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer. No-one viewing this production at the English National Opera will leave it unmoved at the beautiful manner in which The Death of Klinghoffer deals with such a terrible affair.

AtomicJohn Adams - Doctor Atomic

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2007 | Lawrence Renes, Peter Sellars, Gerald Finley, Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, Ellen Rabiner | Opus Arte

There is no reason why opera can’t deal with really big subjects. Even in its earliest form, going right back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and dealing with ancient classical mythology, right through to Verdi and Wagner, or even the treatment of the Holocaust in Weinberg’s The Passenger, through the combined artforms of drama and the abstraction of music given expression through human performance, opera has been able to delve deeply into the nature of humanity when faced by the big questions of existence – God, Love, War and the essential matters of Life and Death.

Obviously, those subjects are no less central to many aspects of our lives today and no less important to modern composers. It’s in this context that the operas of John Adams (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) deal with contemporary or recent ‘headline’ subjects that have had a major impact of our lives or say something significant about the world we live in today. Dealing with Oppenheimer’s development and testing of the first Atom Bomb in June 1945, leading to its deployment in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Doctor Atomic tackles with one of the most significant developments of the 20th century – if not actually the biggest since it deals with the potential annihilation of the entire human race – but one wonders whether this subject may indeed not be too big for opera, or at least for the limitations of composer John Adams and librettist and director Peter Sellars.

Whether they succeed in their aims or not, no-one at least can accuse the authors of lacking in ambition. The decision to condense all the personal, moral, philosophical, political and military considerations around the development of the Atom Bomb into a 24 hour period, confining it (with some significant temporal twists) to the preparations for the first test of the bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico is perhaps necessary from a dramatic perspective, but it does make it somewhat difficult to get to the human heart of the subject and the personalities involved. In some ways, of course, this reflects the dilemma of the scientists working on the project, caught up in the science of the work and in the middle of a war, there’s some urgency involved that doesn’t perhaps leave a lot of time for consideration of the moral and political implications, to say nothing of the personal toll that the results of the project will later exert over the consciences and lives of those men.

There is consequently some discussion and disagreement in Doctor Atomic between Oppenheimer and Teller not only over the estimated yield of the explosion and the possibly global catastrophic consequences that are as yet unknown, but also concerns voiced about the military application of their work on the Japanese people – without warning – particularly since Germany has already surrendered the war. The tense confrontations between scientists and the military advisors as well as the approaching deadline for the first test create a fraught situation that in only heightened and its dangers made real by the electrical storm that has arrived just at the critical moment.

The opera consequently maintains a high edge of intensity throughout. It’s evident in the discordant notes, and staccato strings of Adams’ score, underscored by rumbling percussion; it’s evident also in the sparse staging and stark lighting for this production at the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam – a mobile set of wooden scaffolding over a “ground zero” circle that allows for a reasonable flow to me maintained between scenes. Aside from the busyness of Lucinda Childs’ dancers over the circle, the intensity of the production is even more pronounced however – perhaps to a state of being somewhat overwrought – by the singing performances and the delivery of a rather portentous libretto. Drawn from released declassified official documents, with the addition of some passages from Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto may have authenticity and a sense of poetry that is certainly in keeping with the grandness of the subject, but it does indeed often sound like notes from scientific documents and personal journal observations rather than actual dialogue, and it consequently lacks any deeper insight into the nature of the people involved, or any sense of real human feeling.


With a libretto taking in questions of life and death from the god-like stance in relation to such matters wielded by the figures involved, and with nature invoked in the forms of thunder and lightning (to say nothing of consideration of radioactive rain and visions of “cloud-flower” structures), such weighty pronouncements are moreover sung by a cast of powerful deep voices that are predominately baritone or bass-baritone for the main masculine roles (Gerald Finley, James Maddalena, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink) and mezzo-soprano for the two significant female roles (although Adams reworked Kitty Oppenheimer for soprano Jessica Rivera for this production, it’s still at the lower end of the soprano tessitura). The declarative delivery, against such a musical, scenic and dramatic background with a Chorus that has all the portentousness of a Greek Chorus, is, barring a few brief scenes, consequently never anything less than overwhelmingly tortured and angst-ridden.

Is such an approach justified? Would all these moral questions really have been weighted-up and agonised over in this way over such a short intense period of time, or is this a retrospective look at a significant moment taking in all the implications in the light of what would subsequently transpire in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Either approach would be valid and the scope and nature of the subject itself undoubtedly calls out for just such a treatment, but does it work? There’s no doubting the ability of the composer and librettist to draw these diverse historical references, documents and characters together, poetically working nature and elements into the equation in a manner that is certainly powerful and – by the time one gets to the conclusion – dramatically effective, but rather than being in any way enlightening or instructive about the subject, the overwhelming feeling is that Doctor Atomic is just overwhelming.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release of this 2007 production at De Nederlandse Opera is a strong presentation of the work. It’s filmed often in extreme close-up (under the direction of Peter Sellars) and in High Definition under stark bright lighting, you might get to see right into the pores of the singers more than you would like to. Radio microphones are used for this production and visible on all the performers – whether this was for the stage or to allow better mixing for the recording, I’m not sure, but the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are well presented. In addition to a detailed on-screen synopsis and cast gallery, there are several short background mini-documentaries on the production, and an extended interview with Peter Sellars.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.


The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.