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Mothertongues in China, Nixon in Navajo

By Travis Nichols


Nixon in China has been blaring from my speakers for the past month, partially because I love operas in English (Peter Grimes), but also because, well, the Olympics!
In Italian or German or French or what have you, the full dramaturgical dullness of many lines gets lost on me, but here lines like “Your flight was smooth, I hope?” sung at full bellow have me rolling on the floor with glee.
Opera, like poetry, is wonderfully goofy.


Nixon in China was first proposed as simply an “opera to be written in rhymed couplets” without a pre-determined subject.
Director Peter Sellars gave the couplet assignment to poet Alice Goodman, who had been thinking about poor Richard, and then charged Adams with composing the music to follow.
The result, first performed in 1987, is a haunting portrait of a pathetic hero, Nixon, stumbling through a strange new world ruled by a crafty villain, Mao, while Nixon’s supporting cast–his wife, Pat, and crony, Kissinger–flutter about, beautifully banal.
Goodman’s libretto and Adam’s post-minimal music got me thinking about Nico Muhly, a composer whose work sounds a little like Adams’ to my ears, and includes just a little poetry and a lot of text.
He incorporates the established art of Christopher Smart’s poetry as well as the found sounds of recited addresses in “Mothertongue”. In an email, Muhly told me he finds his texts through formal sources (as in, you know, books) and informal sources (as in, you know, this), but not as yet through any contemporary poetry, despite what I see as some correspondences with all kinds of contemporary poetic practice.
“I am such a huge fan of older poetry (Christopher Smart) and so not entrenched in the contemporary scene,” says Muhly, “I have a lot of suspicions that there are a lot of political overlaps (like, little fiefdoms and battles), and very under-mapped artistic overlaps.”
To which I reply: “Totally under-mapped.”
Contemporary poetry seems an awfully unruly partner. No one wants to dance with it! Especially not in the ways Goodman and Adams were able to collaborate.
There are things like Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio that pop up on the radar every once in a while, but for the most part the fiefdoms seems to rule.
Or am I just not looking in the right places?
Is there on-going, covert diplomacy between the compositional territories?

Comments (2)

  • On August 8, 2008 at 3:31 pm Don Share wrote:

    Interestingly, Alice Goodman is Geoffrey Hill’s wife.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 8:46 pm Jim K. wrote:

    I remember Peter Sellars making a dismal dinner at the
    Andover commons into an epic thing. Our complaints
    were the trials of demi-gods. Kool-Aid was “vitreous secretions”.
    A modern-dress Mikado and a one-man show by James
    Spader on a pedestal were other hints. The sense of Nixon
    needing to be someone in history was something hardly
    anyone else noticed. The heroic in the now; the
    Existential cheerleader sees that. How rare at that time,
    especially for Nixon’s case. To see into the self-myth
    of the sinking idol. That’s the look in his face as he
    walks down the steps.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, August 8th, 2008 by Travis Nichols.