The project is simple:

In an attempt to write more about music, as well as to listen to a wider variety, I am going to aim to publish a handful of blogs a week on concerts I’ve attended or CDs/pieces that I’ve listened to. Mostly this is going to be music from the western art music tradition, what people would generally call ‘classical’, but I’m also out to surprise myself. Some works will be new to me (and probably to most people), so will not. For more common pieces, I’ll aim to review a specific recording, but with the more obscure repertoire I will focus on the piece itself. To start with, I’m setting myself the project of listening through all of ABC’s Classic FM’s ‘Top 100 20th Century’ list, which was voted on and compiled in 2011. Here goes!

Something of a jarring start to a ’20th century’ listening list, this opera is based on the visit of American president Richard Nixon to China in 1972. The action follows the footsteps of President and Mrs Nixon, along with Henry Kissinger, through the several days they spend as guests of Mao Tse-tung and his wife Chiang Ch’ing. Scene changes are rapid, and through the course of a banquet, visits and a ballet performance, each of the four main characters contemplates themselves and the world they have sought to achieve.

Premiered in 1978 by the Houston Grand Opera, Nixon in China was John Adams’s first foray into the genre. With the libretto of Alice Goodman (with whom Adams later collaborated on The Death of Klinghoffer), this work is both close to and far from Adam’s usual minimalist style. Isolated sections do often display a preference for repetition of figures and chords, but the overall effect is one of gradually shifting tension as sequences build and then are dissipated or usurped.

Far from being overly wound up with the politics of the situation, the opera’s success is that it paints the characters in entirely human lights, allowing the audience to laugh even as they grow to understand what drove them. While the edginess of dialogue can sometimes border on irritating, by far the best scenes are those exploring the characters’ inner worlds.

Listening to this work would certainly benefit from having a copy of the libretto handy, or indeed from finding videos of some of the key scenes. However, armed with just a little background knowledge, the opera is an intriguing and at times intensely rewarding listen.