You know what it's like when you return to a book/film/work that you knew some time ago, and get the chance to reaquaint yourself with it. One of two things can happen in my experience - you either sheepishly move that CD to the periphary of your CD shelf in the hope that guests won't spot it and ask 'Oh, what made you buy that?', or, with the benefit of maturity and renewed self-importance, you feel you can justly declare it a total maserpiece and write an article about it for your mate's website that's frequented by people who tend to like good things. So, here goes.
The American composer John Adams has had his fair share of colour-supplement features and TV profiles (both rare for contemporary composers), and one of my good friends in the classical music business down here has long been attempting to coerce me into his unique brand of rather laid-back Adams-worship. But I'm afraid it was a leaky roof in the classical department at HMV on Oxford Street, and a resulting stock-change, that led me to buy a copy of the only recording (how can that be?) of Adams' first opera Nixon in China, on the Nonesuch label, for just £9.99. Thanks for putting it in the bargain bin chaps - appreciated.
Now for the line that I've been trying out tentatively on a few friends recently. 'I think that Nixon in China is the greatest operatic masterpiece of the twentieth century, and I would rate it alongside The Rite of Spring for its musical significance'. Phew, got that out of the way and sorry if your 'comment' facility gets jammed Anthony (well, maybe you'll be OK). I don't know if anyone else feels the same, but sometimes I can hear the jarring of gears when I try and reconcile good art with what I like - though I guess it's something I experience a little less than Richard and Judy. One of the greatest musical experiences, for me (but for very few others no doubt) is hearing Anglican cathedral choirs sing the psalms - somthing that I'm pretty sure has limited artistic value in the 21st century, and not a lot of integrity when I think how deeply it moves me and yet my more than tenous affinity with the words, beautiful as they are. Does this practise say something new and important about the world we are living in? Not hugely. Though I think it has some relevance and the opportunity to move people - but where's the importance in that?
What's so significant about Nixon in China is that it seems to finally answer the huge problem that classical music faced in the twentieth century after the dawn of modernism and atonalism. As classical music got more wierd (and richer for it in many ways, I think), music became a mainstream commercial commodity, that ensured 'music for the masses' would never be the same again. Musicologists argued each other to death about the nuts and bolts of putting together a 'serious' work and maintaining integrity and popularity at the same time (though most didn't attach too much importance to the latter, and some went ot of their way to write music that was less popular than George Bush at the Tony Benn Fan Club AGM).
No matter how much I love an opera, and it's a medium that is very important in my life, there are always moments where I just don't think a particular element works, and which I know that some of my non-music friends would find simply laughable. But there's something about Nixon which is so immediately convincing on every level. Adam's style of writing is of course influenced by popular music, but in Nixon he creates a soundscape in which 20th century America, along with all it's cultural facets, is expressed by opera singers and an orchestra in a way which seems not only natural but artistically nourishing without necessarily posing a challenge (though I should put a health warning on that comment given that I can sit on my sofa with a plate of brie and crackers, and happily listen to the whole of Berg's Lulu without once checking to see if I'm missing You've Been Framed). In Adams' Nixon there are the 'moments' you get in Puccini and Strauss, there's the maths of Mozart and the freedom of Ellington, the Wagnerian churn and the Britten-esque throwaway gesture. Nixon works so well in what is a troubled medium, and whatever definition or pre-requisites you or Charles Saachi want to attach to 'art', it satisfies them - and that's not an Arts Council box-ticking brownie point, its just a measure of how stimulating this work is. More than this, it's a work like Nixon in China which really could dispell the myths about opera as an art form, doing the opera world no end of good - and I'm talking about a revival of a work that's well over twenty years old here, not a new medium designed for a new audience!
I didn't think I'd post this in the Review because it's not really an appraisal; just a re-discovery that I thought I'd share. If there's anyone out there who finds opera a little difficult (for musical reasons, not because you can't stand the thoughts of sharing an auditorium with a load of dreadful tory bigots who are only at the opera house because it's the only place in town where they can get a glass of champagne for over ten pounds - I can understand that as a reason for never going to an opera), then have a look at Nixon in China. As always with opera, someone will ask you the plot. Well, there's this guy and he's quite powerful, and he goes over to China to visit Chariman Mao. Chariman Mao thinks that he's the page boy in disguise, and so hides in the wardrobe to try and trick him into... hang on a minute, I think I got a little confused for a moment there...Well, you'll work the plot out in the end, and if you can't just have a look at a history book that covers 1976.
Adam's music should go down in history as some of the most significant of the last century - he's penned some other good stuff too, and thankfully is still very active today. All the best John, and thank you.