When Nixon opened the door to China

There’s no doubt that President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was one of the significant historical events of the late 20th century. It was an incredible occasion, considering that Nixon was the leader of the free world and Mao Zedong was the leader of the largest communist country.

That’s why this important meeting had an impact on the music world when "Nixon in China" premiered at Houston Grand Opera in October 1987. Although they were invited to this noteworthy occasion, none of the still-living principals attended the performance.

The opera, by American composer John Adams, has been performed by most major opera companies here and abroad over the past 28 years. It is hardly appropriate to tag this work as a new contemporary opera when it has had widespread exposure to so many audiences worldwide.

The creative team crafting this truly American opera was initiated by Peter Sellars, the “enfant terrible” of the theater world, in collaboration with talented librettist Alice Goodman, who recruited a reluctant Adams to create the score. He was not sure he wanted to enter the opera world.

Adams’ minimalist style of music has become known for its signature tempi of urgency rushing forward with melodic simple chords, in contrast to the atonal opera scores of earlier opera composers. This style fits “Nixon in China” because of the urgency and tension that accompanied the historic trip.

The current San Diego Opera performance is a premier for the company. The West Coast premiere was a concert version in May 1987 by San Francisco as a try-out. After the Tiananmen Square protests, Sellars created a reworked, darker version performed by Los Angeles Opera in 1990.

The opening scene of the Nixon’s arrival on the Spirit of ’76 presidential jet follows a traditional opera format with a large chorus of Chinese officials greeting the president and his wife, Pat.

Nixon’s opening speech from the tarmac immediately reflects his bravado and grandiose style of politicking. As the opera progresses, we see a different side of Nixon, insecure and haunted by enemies.

Pat Nixon, on the other hand, is depicted as the kindly, schoolteacher wife of the president, in conflict with Madame Mao, a violent activist who tries to impose some of her political beliefs on the first lady.

The second act — devoted to their wary encounter exposing opposing values and an elaborate revolutionary ballet that praises communism — is the best part of this opera, in my opinion.

Another key element of the story concerns Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who is traveling as part of the delegation.

Although the Chinese leaders showed great respect to the Nixons, they ridiculed him as the ugly American in an elaborate cultural theatrical performance created by Madame Mao as an affront to democracy.

The opera finally made it to the Metropolitan Opera in 2011 with mixed reviews. Adams requires body microphones to be used so the artists are not restricted to their stage position and can still be heard.

Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Cox, was in the audience and gave the performance a warm reception.

The opera has been performed worldwide to become a standard repertory work for contemporary American opera. Adams mixes Stravinsky’s 20th-century neoclassicism, jazz and big band sounds, reminiscent of Nixon’s youth in the 1930s.

The title role is sung by Franco Pomponi with Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon in their SDO debuts. Both have appeared in these roles at major opera companies here and abroad.

Kathleen Kim, last seen here in “A Masked Ball,” performs the pivotal and confrontational Madame Mao; Kim has received great acclaim from her performances at the Met Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

American bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi takes the role of a ridiculed Kissinger in his SDO debut. The large cast of Chinese officials includes tenor Chad Shelton as Chairman Mao and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan as Premier Chou En-lai, also their company debuts.

The conductor, Joseph Mechavich, led the ensemble here in the 2012 premiere of “Moby Dick.”

Stage director James Robinson is regarded as America’s most innovative director in theater, with several premieres of American operas.

“Nixon in China” is sung in English with supertitles over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are 7 p.m. March 14, 17 and 20; and 2 p.m. March 22.

For ticket information, call 619-533 7000 or visit

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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