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Nixon in China

opera in three acts

Music by John Adams
Libretto by Alice Goodman
About Nixon in China

Nixon in China was John Adams' first opera. It tells the story of then-president Richard Nixon's meetings with Mao Tse-Tung which resulted in the 'opening' of China to Western nations. The idea for the opera was concieved by director Peter Sellars, and the setting of the original production was very naturalistic, with actors made up to resemble their well-known historical counterparts and an attempt to authentically recreate scenes like the landing of the Spirit of '76 at the Beijing airport.

Cast of Characters
Chou En-Lai, bar Richard Nixon, bar
Henry Kissinger, bar Nancy T'ang, First Secretary to Mao, ms
Second and Third Secretaries to Mao, ms Mao Tse-Tung, t
Pat Nixon, s Chiang Ch'ing, Madame Mao Tse-Tung, s

Act I

At an airfield outside Beijing, on February 21, 1972, a chorus of Chinese soldiers sing a choral introduction. Richard Nixon's plane, the Spirit of '76, arrives; Nixon is greeted by Choi En-Lai; during the introductions, Nixon reflects on the historical nature of his journey and the way it will be perceived by the American media ("News has a kind of mystery").

Later, Nixon and Henry Kissinger meet with Chairmain Mao. Mao, his words endlessly repeated by his three secretaries, discusses political theory and the upcoming American elections. When Nixon mentions Confucius, Mao explains his vision of modern China ("We no longer need Confucius").

At a banquet in honor of the Americans, Premier Chou and President Nixon in turn give formal toasts, which become less formal as the evening goes on ("Ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends"/"Mr. Premier, distinguished guests").

Act II

Pat Nixon is taken on a carefully choreographed publicity tour of factories, sights and public buildings. She reflects on the China she has been shown, as compared to the past and future of the United States ("This is prophetic").

The Nixons attend a performance of Madame Mao's ballet, The Red Detachment of Women. During the performance, Pat Nixon is drawn into the action of the play, and the villain of the piece appears to be played by Henry Kissinger. The performance ends with a defiant aria by Madame Mao herself ("I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung").


On the last night of the visit, the Nixons, Mao, and Chou reflect on the personal histories that have led them to this point, includig Nixon's war service and the Long March. As the opera ends, Chou reflects on the historical nature of the past few days ("I am old and I cannot sleep").

Performance History
World premiere
Houston Grand Opera, Houston, Texas
October 22, 1987
Chou En-Lai: Sanford Sylvan
Richard Nixon: James Maddalena
Henry Kissinger: Thomas Hammons
Nancy T'ang: Mari Opatz
Second Secretary: Stephanie Friedman
Third Secretary: Marion Dry
Mao Tse-Tung: John Duykers
Pat Nixon: Carolann Page
Chiang Ch'ing: Trudy Ellen Craney
John DeMain, conductor
Peter Sellars, stage director
Mark Morris, choreographer
Adrianne Lobel, set designer
Dunya Ramicova, costume designer
James F. Ingalls, lighting designer
New York premiere
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, New York
December 4, 1987
Company premiere
Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
March 26, 1988
European premiere
Netherlands Opera
June 2, 1988
Company premiere
English National Opera, London, England
June 7, 2000
Chou En-Lai: David Kempster
Richard Nixon: James Maddalena
Henry Kissinger: Stephen Owen
Mao Tse-Tung: Robert Brubaker
Pat Nixon: Janis Kelley
Chiang Ch'ing: Judith Howard
Paul Daniel, conductor
Peter Sellars, stage director
Adrianne Lobel, set design
Discography Search for recordings of Nixon in China at Amazon.com

John Adams: "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung" from Nixon in China


Elin Carlson

And What Of Love

CD / Eroica Classical (1998)

John Adams

Highlights from Nixon in China

St. Luke's/de Waart

CD / Elektra Nonesuch 9 79193-2 (1990)

excerpts from Nixon in China


John Adams

The John Adams Earbox

10 CD / Nonesuch 79453 (1999)

John Adams

Nixon in China

St. Luke's/de Waart

3 CD / Elektra Nonesuch 9 79177-2 (1990)

John Adams: "This is prophetic" from Nixon in China


Dawn Upshaw

The World So Wide

CD / Nonesuch 79458 (1998)

Bibliography Search for book about Nixon in China at Amazon.com

John Adams: "This is prophetic!" from Nixon in China


Boosey & Hawkes American Arias: Soprano

Boosey and Hawkes 2004

John Adams: Chou En Lai's Epilogue from Nixon in China

John Adams: News Aria from Nixon in China


Boosey & Hawkes American Arias: Bass

Boosey and Hawkes 2004

Last update: January 1, 2009