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John Adams on Nixon, opera, new projects

The San Francisco Opera is mounting their first-ever production of Nixon in China this month and the Mercury News just published a great interview of Adam's by music critic Richard Scheinin. In it Adams talks a lot about Nixon and opera, working with Peter Sellars, and how he's been searching for a subject for a new opera for the past several years. It's a great read; here's a photo from the SF Opera dress rehearsal and an excerpt.

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Adams: You know, I conducted "Nixon" at the Met last year, and in many ways really became re-acquainted with it. And I just love the libretto. I love every moment in it. I can't believe there are still people who complain about it being arch or dense or incomprehensible. I think it's just fantastic. Alice caught the tone of the Chinese and the official Communist utterances. She caught the Middle-American tone of the U.S. politicians.

Scheinin: How did the music strike you, when you went back and conducted it?

Adams: I was surprised by how minimalist the music is. When I started opening the score again, I hadn't really looked at it or conducted it in 10 or 15 years -- and compared to what I now do, I was shocked by all those bald arpeggios, bar after bar! It's a kind of writing I would never do now. It's not a pure stylistic trope the way early Philip Glass is -- or the way late Philip Glass continues to be, for that matter. (Just two months ago I conducted Philip's Ninth Symphony with the L.A. Philharmonic and was reminded how closely he has adhered to his minimalist technique.) But in 1985 I definitely was influenced and had a great debt to (Glass's opera) "Satyagraha," which I think is a masterpiece.

But I also mixed many other things in it: American swing-band music and Glenn Miller, and when the Air Force One lands on the runway, it does so to a kind of pompous newsreel music with brass fanfares and burbling woodwinds. When the Nixons are hosted by the Chinese at a performance of a Communist ballet in the second act, the music I composed was a sort of satire of the terrible scores these ballets are set to. Because the music to these Cultural Revolution ballets were often written by committees of composers, I wrote something that would sound equally stylistically confusing. So I had some fun with that, writing a ballet that, in the same confused manner as those ballets, sounds like everything and the kitchen sink-- from marching music, to tawdry Romantic swooning to graphic bump and grind.

 

 

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