How Nixon's Trip to China Inspired a Great American Opera

by Seth Colter Walls

Just 13 years after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, a heroic opera about him seemed like a sure flop. Today, it’s part of the global repertoire.

Image credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Opera houses don’t usually have to protect themselves against libel suits. But before curtains rose at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, the venue’s management took out a massive insurance policy. The team knew the upcoming show would be a lightning rod. And now, as the world premiere approached, they were getting nervous.

They weren’t the only ones. As the audience anxiously filed in, the minimalist orchestral prelude built simple patterns that crested and morphed. The set, on the other hand, was anything but austere. As the music crescendoed, a life-size airliner landed on stage: Richard Nixon’s Spirit of ’76. The sight of the massive prop sent the audience into uncertain applause. Things were only about to get stranger.

When the door of the plane swung open, Nixon emerged from the stairs, belting out an aria. In rhyming couplets, he sang of the “murmuring down below” and rats—his political enemies—that “begin to chew the sheets” back home, lying in wait for his failures.

From its opening scene, Nixon in China, this brainchild of a precocious 30-year-old director, promised to be a complete departure from tradition. By diving into fresh history and painting a heroic picture of a man whose legacy was far more dubious, Nixon in China was no doubt a gutsy work of art. But was it any good? That’s been a subject of debate for critics ever since. Could Nixon in China be the great savior of opera, helping it navigate the modern terrain of MTV and the 24-hour news cycle? Or was it simply an audacious act of bravado poised to fizzle out?

Nixon’s Big Adventure

On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon made a shocking announcement. In a televised address to the American people, he stated, “There can be no stable and enduring peace without the participation of the People’s Republic of China.” The implications were staggering. Since the end of World War II, the United States and Communist PRC had at best ignored each other and at worst fought a proxy war on the Korean Peninsula. But as the 1960s drew to a close, both Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong were beginning to see the advantage of improved relations.

Setting the stage for the two longtime enemies to make up was no small task. At the time, the United States didn’t recognize the Communist government in mainland China—all official relations were still conducted with the Republic of China in Taiwan. And China wasn’t exactly the modern nation it claimed to be—there were only a few airports with runways considered safe enough for the president to land. But Nixon was in a unique position. Thanks to his reputation as a “Red hunter,” a badge he’d earned prosecuting accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss, Nixon had the freedom to take gambles that a president with fewer conservative credentials could not. As the adage goes: Only Nixon could go to China.

Today, Nixon is remembered as part crook, part cartoon. But in February 1972, his eight-day trip to the People’s Republic became a global media extravaganza. New technology allowed for evening banquets to be broadcast live on American morning television. One New York chef had official dinner menus sent to him via Telex so he could re-create the president’s meals for patrons that very same day.

The public was captivated and enamored, and Nixon’s effort was universally praised. It didn’t matter that virtually nothing of direct diplomatic importance was achieved during the trip—the images were enough.

Thirteen years later, the world was a different place. Relations with China had improved, but the trip had largely faded from the national memory. And Nixon himself, tarnished by Watergate, was no longer a romantic figure. Even in conservative circles, this wasn’t the time for a sympathetic opera about Nixon—at least that’s how it seemed.

The Wunderkind

On every playbill and poster, Nixon in China is billed as minimalist composer John Adams’s work. And it is. The score is pure Adams, awash in his signature swelling and folding themes. But the opera is that rare masterpiece that owes its existence to its director, not its composer. If only Nixon could go to China, then only Peter Sellars could make an opera about it.

As an undergrad at Harvard, Sellars emerged as a new force in American theater. He’d made waves with his interpretations, setting Antony and Cleopatra in a university swimming pool and performing Wagner’s Ring Cycle with marionettes. Since graduating, his goal was to shake up Broadway. “Coming out of school, I thought I would transform the American musical,” said Sellars. But in 1983, two weeks before his Broadway debut, he was handed a pink slip. His confidence shattered.

Then, a phone call changed everything. That same week, the 24-year-old learned that he’d won a $144,000 MacArthur grant. “Without the money, I might have given up directing and taken up something else,” he said. Bolstered by the news, he wanted to tackle something ambitious. When he approached John Adams, a fellow Harvard grad known for his minimalist compositions, Sellars used three words to sell his vision: “Nixon in China.”

Adams, who had never written music for a solo voice, dismissed Sellars’s proposal outright. But the director persisted. In 1985, Adams finally agreed, with one condition: A poet had to write the libretto. Sellars already had one in mind—Alice Goodman, another Harvard classmate. Together the three set out to construct a modern opera: a heroic tale of Nixon’s forgotten triumph, free of any satire.

What emerged was a work thick with questions about the government’s role in manufacturing history and myth. The first act plays like postcards from a look book, with scenes ripped from TV screens and magazine spreads; the second peers behind the gloss to explore tense behind-the-scenes chaos; and the third finds the principals lonely in bed, reflecting on what just happened, wondering whether any of it mattered. Working from Washington, D.C., had its own effect. As Sellars told Tempo, “[W]e were writing this opera in the second term of the Reagan era … that whole notion of government by press release, where there is no substance, just a photo opportunity became the issue.”

Adding to the complexity, Sellars and his team merged but never unified their competing visions for the production. According to Goodman, “There are places where the music goes against the grain of the libretto and places where the staging goes against the grain of both.” Differing stances on the Cultural Revolution, Nixon, and Mao, brought further tension to the group. And while the team tried to turn disagreements into musical counterpoints, some decisions were railroaded through. Sellars, for instance, changed the third act at the last minute from a noisy party scene to one where the actors sing from beds “that look like coffins.” As he tells it: “John was shocked. Alice was shocked. John was resistant for years, really—though he was nice about it.” The result was a beautifully layered and fractured product. But would the critics see it that way?

The Curtain Rises

"That was it?" ran the headline of The New York Times story about the Houston premiere. In his dismissive review, the critic Donal Henahan likened the simplistic, repetitive riffs to McDonald’s cuisine. The PBS live broadcast that accompanied the debut, narrated by Walter Cronkite, was dismissive in its own way: Cronkite talked more about his own experience on the trip than the opera being aired.

Like the meeting between Nixon and Mao itself, Nixon in China saw no immediate world-changing payoff. And yet, the opera was undoubtedly a phenomenon—an avant-garde performance that became big business. Despite middling reviews, the show toured to sold-out theaters night after night. When it arrived at D.C.’s Kennedy Center six months into its run, 12 congressmen, three senators and a Supreme Court justice were in attendance. Audiences filed out of theaters with cloudy impressions: unsure about the production but certain that they’d witnessed something important.

Image credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

To Peter Sellars’s credit, Nixon in China did what the director had set out to do: It changed opera. For the first time in recent memory, an opera mattered—and not just to people who already cared about opera. Sellars’s brash spinning of headlines into a classical format spurred a new genre. Today, “CNN operas” are hardly a novelty, with modern variants such as the tabloid-inspired Anna Nicole finding success on world stages.

And just as Nixon in China helped push the opera world to reconsider the definition of epic, critics have begun to reconsider their stance. In 2011, Nixon in China debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This time, The New York Times called it “audacious and moving.” But perhaps Nixon in China’s greatest legacy won’t be how it’s thought of today. Sellars believes his work could function as an oral history, not unlike Verdi’s Don Carlo, which few people try to reconcile with the history books. “Opera is about this long-term perspective, and this piece will be performed 200 years from now … when so many of the journalistic details will have faded,” said Sellars, in a 2011 interview with The Times. “The music and the poetry will be carrying something that will always be true.”

A Viewer’s Guide

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 performance is available for streaming on the Met’s website. But what should you be watching for?

Can you hear the big band sound? Adams included a saxophone section instead of the more traditional French horn to allow for a mid-century American pop feel, particularly for ?Nixon’s songs.

All of the characters of the opera are deeply complex, with one exception: Henry ?Kissinger, who is written with a one dimensional, arrogant air. In the Act 1 tête-à-tête with Mao, Kissinger admits he’s become lost in the conversation; in Act 3, he departs from the stage after asking where he might find a bathroom. (Perhaps that’s why the real Kissinger, a noted opera buff, was nowhere to be seen at the 2011 performance.)

The women rule the second act: It’s bookended by unforgettable arias for Pat Nixon and Madame Mao. Pat Nixon wonders about the fragility of the American way of life with the sweetly lyrical “This Is Prophetic!,” while later Madame Mao terrifies and intimidates in her forceful “I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung.”

It’s rare for an act to contain only one scene, as Act 3 does. Notice how the final section echoes the oddly anticlimactic nature of the summit itself. Each of the principals is seen in his or her bedroom, wondering about the impact of their public actions. Mao’s premier, Chou En-lai, cuts to the chase: “How much of what we did was good?”

Don’t try to watch all three hours of the opera in one sitting! Do like the folks at the opera house do, and take a break at the end of every act.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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