Major Operas | Nixon in China by John Adams | Modern Era

Composed: 1984–87
Premiered: 1987, Houston
Libretto by Alice Goodman

Act I

On 21 February 1972, representatives of the Chinese armed forces are waiting at an airfield outside Beijing in order to greet President Richard Nixon on his arrival. The presidential Boeing, The Spirit of ’76, taxies to a halt. Nixon disembarks with his wife, Pat, and greets Premier Chou En-lai. Nixon is excited. He compares his landing in Beijing, seen live by millions of Americans on prime-time television, with the 1969 landing of the astronauts on the moon. Henry Kissinger tells him he is to see Mao Tse-tung.

One hour later Nixon meets Chairman Mao in his office. Official photographs are taken. Everything Mao says is repeated, parrot-style, by his three secretaries. Nixon cannot understand Mao’s seemingly unfathomable political observations and gnomic jokes. At the evening banquet Chou offers a toast to future brotherhood. Nixon’s reply is to the Chinese people and the hope of peace. The toasts become less formal.

Act II

Next morning Mrs Nixon is given a glass elephant while visiting a factory. At a farm she reminisces about rearing a prize-winning boar. Her sightseeing continues to the Summer Palace and the Ming tombs. Their evening entertainment is The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The wicked overseer menacing the downtrodden peasant girl is played by Kissinger. Mrs Nixon is drawn into the action. The girl is rescued and joins the Red Women’s Militia. Chiang Ch’ing asserts her place in Chinese history.


On the last night of the visit the five principal characters lie in separate beds. The Nixons remember their early marriage, including his hamburger stand. Mao and Chiang Ch’ing recall the film actress meeting the revolutionary, and their struggles for the Revolution. Chou En-lai, alone, ponders, ‘How much of what we did was good?’

Personalities | John Adams | Modern Era | Opera


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