The work was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, October 22, 1987 in a production by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris.
The opera focuses on the personalities and personal histories of the six key players, Nixon and his wife Pat, Jiang Qing (spelled "Chiang Ch'ing" in the libretto) and Chairman Mao ("Mao Zedong"), and the two close advisors to the two parties, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai ("Chou En-lai"). It is composed of three acts. The first details the anticipation and arrival of the Nixon cortege and the first meeting and evening in China. The second act shifts focus to Pat Nixon, as she makes tours of rural China, including an encounter at a pig farm. The second scene includes a performance of a Communist propaganda play, in which first Pat Nixon, then her husband and then Jiang Qing, intercede in the performance. The last act chronicles the last night in China, in which the characters dance a foxtrot, their thoughts wandering to their own pasts.
Musically, the opera perhaps owes more influence to minimalism than any Asian styles. (John Adams adapted the foxtrot theme from the last act into a concert piece entitled "The Chairman Dances", published before the opera in 1985. In the intervening period, Adams switched publishers, hence the Foxtrot for Orchestra being published by G. Schirmer and the opera by Boosey & Hawkes.) The libretto, by contrast, was written completely in rhymed, metered couplets, reminiscent of poetic and theatrical styles native to China.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, October 22, 1987|
(Conductor: John DeMain)
|Richard Nixon||baritone||James Maddalena|
|Pat Nixon||soprano||Carolann Page|
|Chou En-lai||baritone||Sanford Sylvan|
|Mao Tse-tung||tenor||John Duykers|
|Henry Kissinger||bass||Thomas Hammons|
|Chiang Ch'ing||soprano||Trudy Ellen Craney|
|Nancy T'sang, first secretary to Mao||mezzo-soprano|
|Second secretary to Mao||mezzo-soprano|
|Third secretary to Mao||mezzo-soprano|
|Dancers, militia, citizens of Beijing|
The opera begins at Beijing Airport. A detachment of Chinese troops marches on to the stage and sings a 1930s Red Army song, The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention. As the soldiers wait, an airplane taxis and lands on the stage - the Nixons and Henry Kissinger disembark and are greeted by Chou Enlai. As Nixon is introduced to various Chinese officials by Chou, he sings of his hopes and fears for his historic visit.
Later, Richard Nixon and Kissinger visit Mao's study along with Chou. While Nixon attempts to set out his stall with a simple and simplistic vision of peace between America and China, Mao wishes to discuss philosophy with Nixon and speaks in riddles. The visit is not entirely a success, and the elderly Mao is soon worn out. Chou departs with Nixon and Kissinger.
On the first night of the visit, a great feast for the American delegation is held in the Great Hall of the People. The Nixons and Chou gradually relax in one another's company as good food and strong drink takes its effect. Chou rises to make a toast to the American delegation, full of fulsome praise and wishes for peaceful co-existence. Nixon responds in kind, congratulating the Chinese for their hospitality and recanting his previous opposition to China. The party continues with mutual compliments and toasting.
Later that night, the Nixons attend the Chinese opera, to see a piece written by Madam Mao called The Red Detachment of Women. The piece is a simplistic display of politicised music-theatre, with the oppressed peasants of a tropical island saved from their brutal landlord by heroic women of the Red Army.
However, somehow the main characters are drawn into the opera, each revealing their true nature, with Pat Nixon defending the weak, Kissinger siding with the brutal landlord and Madam Mao's desire to save the peasants at all costs leading her to become more brutal than the landlord was in the first place. Eventually, a riot develops on stage with Chou and Madam Mao on opposite sides - the opera has become a rerun of the Cultural Revolution.
The reputation of the opera was to a significant measure driven by the 1988 recording with the original cast and the Orchestra of St. Luke's conducted by Edo de Waart (Nonesuch Records 79177), a strongly cast, vibrant performance by musicians with great personal commitment to the piece, not only among the soloists but also among the orchestra and chorus.
Since 2000, several new productions of the opera have been staged and well received, including a noteworthy 2006 production by the Chicago Opera Theater. In 2005, a few pieces from Adams' opera were selected as part of an eight-hour soundtrack for the computer game "Sid Meier's Civilization IV", representing the modern era.