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Nixon in China meets the Berlin (Opera) Wall

INTERVIEW: John Adams. After a 25 year wait, Adams' first opera, Nixon in China, finally receives it's Berlin premiere. Capitalism and communism clash in the unlikely opera subject of a US president traveling abroad.

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Photo by Lara Platman

Capitalism and communism continue to clash as American comoposer John Adams’ first opera finally receives its Berlin premiere at Musikfest.

It might seem an unlikely subject for an opera: an American president travels abroad. Of course, the fact that it’s during the Cold War, the country is communist China and said president is Richard M. Nixon (Tricky Dick of Watergate fame) makes things more interesting.

Taking inspiration from jazz and popular music, Adams broke with atonal trends in the academic music world and created a modern opera with beautiful orchestrations and singable – dare we say, catchy – melodies. Of course diplomacy is never as simple as it seems, and the modern music world isn’t without machinations of its own: it took 25 years to bring Adams’ groundbreaking opera to Berlin.

With the help of the BBC orchestra, the Philharmonie will finally present the Berlin concert premiere of Nixon in China on September 10.

When you started working on Nixon in China in 1985, could you have imagined that it would be the focal point of a Berlin festival focusing on a century of American music?

At that point there was very little tradition of American opera. I’m not saying that there weren’t opera composers – there were people like Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber – but aside from Porgy and Bess there had never been an American opera that had an international presence. Then Satyagraha (Philip Glass, 1979) came on the scene and that seemed quite exciting because it was a story about relatively contemporary history and a thing that was very much present in our lives, which was political oppression and passive resistance. Then, the idea of having an opera about the presidency and the fact that at the time I was considered a minimalist composer – those elements conspired to really catch the public attention.

Why did it take Berlin so long to catch on?

The bottom line is it really should have been produced in a Berlin opera house by now. It is one of the most successful contemporary operas around, in terms of the number of productions and performances, but still it took 25 years to get to the Met. It’s just a measure of how very, very slow the acceptance is of any new opera into the repertoire.

Will that ever change?

I think it’s very hard to say. I think that movies have become such a major part of cultural life but opera’s a real speciality you know. The attraction of opera for people is big-name singers and the perfect repetition of a very tiny core repertoire, so what I do is considered quite unusual.

As a composition student in the 1960s and 1970s, what was it like to break away from rigid, atonal music?

I could make it very dramatic and say that it was a huge struggle and that nobody paid attention, blah blah. I did go to school during the period of high modernism and twelve-tone composition, but I also went to school during the period of Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. We did have models for expressivity and for communication, for viewing music as a profoundly communicating act. And I’m glad that I took that to heart. I sensed very early on, even as a 19- or 20-year-old, that the music that was represented by European modernism was a dead end. Over the years I’ve had to put up with a lot of criticism from reviewers who had really signed on to that orthodoxy and they were very wary of letting it go. I had to put up with a huge amount of ridicule, but over the years that has gradually changed.

Why do you think that this kind of music has had staying power, especially in Europe?

I think that the survival of high modernism, particularly in music, has had to do with government support of the arts. There isn’t such a thing where artists have had to find a way to survive. And I know that sounds really filthy because it suggests the market and commercialism. But if you look at Mozart or Verdi and even Beethoven and certainly Stravinsky, these were composers who were very original but they also always had an eye to what would please their audiences. And of course these are devastatingly, baldly capitalist commercialist comments.

America is certainly known for being sceptical of government arts funding, in comparison to Europe.

It’s a very complicated thing. I mean, I could use a great deal more government support of the arts. It’s just terrible to be living in a country where it’s forbidden, essentially. We have the National Endowment for the Arts but that’s just a fig leaf.

There’s a Guardian article from 2008 that quotes you as saying you were blacklisted in the States as a leftist artist. Did your feelings change after the 2008 election?

Of course. Let’s face it, the George W. Bush era was a really awful time for this country. It started with something that wasn’t his doing, which was 9/11, but it just got worse and worse. It’s a very complicated country to be a part of right now: right wing ideology is so ascendant. Most of my friends feel the same way that I do, which is that Obama is probably going to be re-elected, but that what comes after that is probably going to be pretty awful.

Why have you chosen to focus on events from history in some of your works?

I think because opera operates on a very surreal plane, you could call it on the mythic level, it has this unique ability to address themes and events of the human condition that are unconscious. The theme of international politics and the collision of capitalism and communism in Nixon in China, terrorism in Klinghoffer (1991), and nuclear holocaust in Dr. Atomic (2005), these are themes which lie deeply embedded in the collective awareness, the conscious and subconscious, of all human beings, but particularly Americans.

And this ability to work on both conscious and subconscious levels is one reason why opera still resonates.

I often have these experiences – it just happened the other night – people come up to me and they tell me how many times they went back to see Dr. Atomic or how they were so affected by The Death of Klinghoffer, and I know they wouldn’t bother to tell me that if it weren’t really true. When that happens, I feel like my efforts have paid off.

NIXON IN CHINA Sep 10, 19:00 | Philharmonie, Herbertvon- Karajan-Str. 1, Tiergarten, S+U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz