Arts & Culture

‘Accidental opera composer’ speaks

5 min read

Arts Medal recipient John Adams ’69 reminisces

As a young man, John Adams didn’t like opera.

“I never listened to opera as a kid. I didn’t like the operatic voice or the stiff posturing of opera performances.”

Today Adams calls himself “an accidental opera composer.”

Some accident.

In addition to composing a large body of frequently performed orchestral works, Adams has become America’s best-known contemporary opera composer (“Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic”).

Adams ’69, the 2007 recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, spoke May 4 about how he overcame his early dislike and ended up taking opera in an exciting new direction. The title of his talk was “Music and the American Mythology.”

Actor John Lithgow ’67, master of the arts at Harvard, and a close friend since their undergraduate days, introduced Adams as the composer of “distinctly American works steeped in the vernacular of this country.”

For Adams, the appreciation of opera was a long time coming. Even hearing a performance of Verdi’s “Aida” with Birgit Nilsson and Richard Tucker at New York’s Metropolitan Opera when he was a teenager couldn’t change his mind.

“I hated it.”

At Harvard, former dean of students Archie Epps managed to recruit Adams as the conductor of a student performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Lithgow as stage director, but the participation was fleeting.

“I went back to hating opera again, until I discovered Wagner. I became fascinated with how Wagner took the collective unconscious of his time and catapulted it up to the level of mythic expression.”

Adams, who is often described as a musical minimalist but one whose work incorporates a wide range of styles, including late romanticism, modernism, and jazz, began to think about how he might be able to take a Wagnerian approach to contemporary American culture. The key event came when theater and opera director Peter Sellars ’80 suggested that they do an opera together. Sellars had already come up with a title: “Nixon in China.”

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a brilliant idea it was. It would allow me to get inside the skin of an archetypal American personality.”

Not that Adams was a fan of the former president.

“Nixon tried to send me to Vietnam, so I had strong feelings about him.”

Adams and Sellars recruited another Harvard grad, poet Alice Goodman ’80, to write the libretto. The result, Adams said, was “one of the best librettos in the history of opera,” which combined “elevation of tone with a devastating sense of humor” and captured the “ironies, hyperboles, and hypocrisy” of the encounter.

Adams described the opera as a pageant in three acts mirroring the three days Nixon spent in 1972 conferring with Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and other Chinese leaders, an event that changed China’s relationship with the United States and with the world. Pat Nixon, Madame Mao, and Henry Kissinger also appear as characters.

Adams emphasized that “Nixon in China,” as indeed all his operas, sticks very closely to historical fact, with much of the dialogue coming directly from newspaper reports, memoirs, and other sources.

“They’ve suffered from the term ‘docu-opera’ or ‘CNN-opera,’ but that misses the point. They take real events that are focal points of the American experience.”

Thus in “Nixon in China,” Adams portrays the encounter of capitalism with communism, “a system that places a market value on everything a human being does compared with a system where no one goes hungry but where personal freedom is sacrificed to the communal good.”

Adams’ next opera also presented two conflicting ideologies, but in this case the results have proven far more inflammatory. “The Death of Klinghoffer” focuses on the 1985 hijacking by four Palestinian men of the Italian tourist ship Achille Lauro, ending with the execution of a Jewish, wheelchair-bound passenger named Leon Klinghoffer. Adams said that for him, the story seemed profound and moving, “like something you might read in the Old Testament.” But Adams’ presentation struck others as offensive.

“The opera asks the question, Why would a young Palestinian become a suicide bomber? It shows the Palestinian narrative from the Palestinian point of view, but you can’t do that in this country because it’s seen as sympathizing.”

When the opera was performed in the United States many critics accused Adams of romanticizing terrorism and of being anti-Semitic and anti-American, while others insisted that, although the opera does explore the motivations of the Palestinians, it ultimately condemns their acts as cruel and inhuman.

Adams’ most recent opera came about when the director of the San Francisco Opera suggested that he write a modern version of the Faust legend. The character that came most readily to mind was the brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project. As he began working on the opera, however, Adams realized that Oppenheimer’s story was very different from that of Faust, the legend of a man who sells his soul for ultimate knowledge.

“At the time, the creation of the atomic bomb was felt to be an act of desperation and of heroism, a race to build the bomb before Germany did.”

For this opera, Sellars provided the libretto, using mostly actual sources, such as “Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” an upbeat 1945 publication by Henry DeWolf Smyth; as well passages from the Bhagavad Gita, poetry by Baudelaire, John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser; and a traditional Tewa Indian song. Another of the opera’s choruses is based on a description of the compression of the bomb’s plutonium core that Adams found on the Internet and recognized as a piece of accidental poetry.

In writing about the week leading up to the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert, Adams felt that he had again chosen an event that resounded in the American consciousness.

“It’s one of the great American stories. It combines Yankee ingenuity with that obsessively and morbidly beautiful image of the mushroom cloud that dominated the American consciousness throughout my youth.”