The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes “Nixon in China” so appealing?

February 11, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

My crystal ball has a lot of cracks in it, including two very large ones left over from the George McGovern presidential campaign and the reelection campaign of former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl.

But I’m still willing to predict that this Saturday, tomorrow, will see large houses, if not sellouts, for the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” broadcast of “Nixon in China” by the American composer John Adams (below).

And I am not just talking about Madison, where “Nixon in China” will be broadcast at the westside Point Cinemas and the eastside Eastgate cinemas where the 4-hour production starts at noon, but people will be getting seats a lot sooner. (There is also an encore screening on March 2. Tickets are $24 with discounts for seniors over 60 and children.)

The “Met Live in HD” productions have been phenomenally popular, one of the bright spots in an often bleak world of classical music. Even so, I don’t think I have ever heard so much excitement and word of mouth about a single Met HD production from both opera fans and non-opera fans.

Could it be because of the political and cultural content that seems more relevant to today than most operas?

Could it be because, as a celebrity culture, we are fascinated with presidents and dictators?

Could it be because Richard Nixon himself in an engaging figure, one perhaps as enigmatic, secretive and criminal – though not any where near as criminal — as China and Chairman Mao?

Could it be because the work itself seems like the opera version of reality TV, a fusion of fiction and non-fiction – “docu-opera,” to use a label that the composer rejects?

Could it because of all the economic and political news about China in the media these days?

Could it be because the music is so good?

Could it also be because two local figures—the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain (below top) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Edo de Waart (below bottom) who lives in Middleton — both played seminal roles in the live and recorded premieres of the work 25 years ago,  the former at the Houston Grand Opera and the latter at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra?

Whatever the reason, “Nixon in China” does indeed seem to be entering the mainstream repertoire – no small feat for a minimalist work – and people are talking. There must be a good reason why it is FINALLY making its debut at the iconic but largely conservative Met.

So for today’s post I thought I would provide some links to inform the discussions and pique or even satisfy curiosities. They include purely informational entries as well as background pieces and a review.

I’m sure there is a lot more, and I hope readers will leave replies with links to more reviews and background pieces as well as with their own reactions to the HD broadcast and why they went to it.

For background:


For a review of the Met production by The New York Times’ chief critic Anthony Tommasini:

Did you go to “Nixon in China”?

What did you think?

What do you think is the big draw of the opera?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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