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John Adams and his `Nixon in China': Could this be another `Porgy and Bess'? Opera to have its first performance in Houston this week

Opera, says composer John Adams, is often ``an expression of national thoughts or national vision.'' Mr. Adams hails from the United States, and his new opera is steeped in what he calls ``the American vernacular'' right from its title: ``Nixon in China.''

It takes place during President Nixon's visit to Peking in 1972. Characters include the Nixons, the Maos, and the kind of supporting cast you'd find at a historically important state meeting.

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``Nixon in China,'' with a libretto by Alice Goodman, is Adams's first opera. The Houston Grand Opera will give its premi`ere Thursday, and it will also be performed Dec. 4-17 in the ``Next Wave'' festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It's easy to smile at the notion of a grand opera about Nixon and company. But the project is no joke, and Adams hopes it will be taken as seriously as a ``Porgy and Bess'' or ``Mahagonny.''

The concept was born when Peter Sellars, who is directing the opera, read Nixon's memoirs a few years ago. He and the composer were drawn to ``the idea of the two cultures clashing,'' Adams says, and to the personalities of the people involved, ``all of them quintessentially operatic types.''

Adams and Sellars also saw dramatic possibilities in ``the wonderful cultural implications of ... the American republican dream going with an advance press party [to meet] a culture that goes back thousands of years, and which has only recently experienced this incredible spasm in its history, i.e., the Communist Revolution.''

Not to mention the fascinating character of Mao himself (``he's a fantastically good poet ... every time he speaks, it's a kind of riddle'') and his wife, ``an iron butterfly ... queen of the night.'' Put it all together, says the composer, and it's ``the best chance for a great opera that's ever come along. I'd better not blow it.''

Adams has surprised music listeners before now. A graduate of Harvard University who has worked extensively with the San Francisco Symphony, he's usually grouped with the so-called ``minimalist'' school. He often uses the repetitious structures and stripped-down harmonies associated with Philip Glass and Steve Reich, two pioneers of that style.

Yet some of his compositions have steered in unexpected directions even by avant-garde standards - most famously his ``Grand Pianola Music,'' an ambitious work with piano passages that Liberace could (almost) have dreamed up.

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Discussing their work over breakfast in Manhattan recently, composer Adams and librettist Goodman agreed that the names China and Nixon are both ``highly charged with many different meanings'' in the public mind.

``The very name Nixon brings in all kinds of things that happened after the China episode,'' the composer notes.

And this is fine with him. ``I think something with that kind of power - to summon up an immediate repertoire of responses - is the perfect thing for an opera,'' Adams remarks.

``That to me is what myth is all about: a constellation of stimuli which on contact just explodes into a wealth of relationships,'' he says. ``And that's why I think these characters really do constitute our mythology.''

Adams finds opera to be a congenial form. He doesn't favor a ``long, bel canto, melismatic'' style, though.

``There's a drama unfolding up on the stage,'' he asserts, ``and I'm not interested in people suddenly latching onto one vowel and taking off for 10 minutes, which totally vitiates all the dramatic tension. I basically treat [opera] as music drama.''

The biggest challenge in composing an opera is determining its overall form - a matter of ``modulating the energy,'' as he puts it, smiling at the trendy overtones of his words.

``Pardon me for my California years,'' he says, ``but I really do view musical drama as a matter of balancing energy levels. ... I have to be careful that the opera has the right sense of balance, because if you make a mistake on that higher architectonic level, it's very hard to fix ... I tend to write high-energy music. I'm sort of a nervous guy!''

Unlike most ``minimalist'' composers, Adams has a bit of affection for that label. ``Minimalism was helpful to me,'' he explains, ``because it was ... relatively precise. But you'll notice I use the past tense.'' Now, he continues, he has ``internalized'' the elements of the style and gone beyond the old label.

A key to his music, Adams says, has been his wish to ``externalize'' musical processes - like an architect who makes the structural parts of a building visible on the outside. ``It's not something you want to see very often,'' he says with a chuckle, ``but minimalism is somewhat like that - when we experience the structure and the musical progress as the matter of primary interest.'' As examples he cites ``Drumming,'' by Steve Reich, and ``In C,'' by Terry Riley, two influential works.

Today, he adds, minimalist practices are changing. In works by Reich and himself, for example, ``these formal matters have receded into the background and larger, more expressive issues have taken their place. But the three main elements of minimalism - regular pulse, repetitive structures, and tonal language with very slow harmonic rhythm - still tend to stay the same.''

Adams feels that he's ``the least minimal'' of minimalist composers, since his music ``expresses much more change within a shorter period of time.'' This trend continues in his new opera, which has ``so many shifts of mood. The clouds are always passing over the sun.''

To illustrate, he cites a Nixon aria. ``He's getting into his plane and sees himself first as an Apollo astronaut, then as a hero surrounded by traitors, and then on TV back in the heartland of America. To reflect this, the music has to become very, very mobile and mercurial.''

Adams came of age musically, he notes, at a time when ``there was an enormous amount of prestige placed on experimentation'' and ``an almost scientific posture'' with regard to creativity. He sees composers as diverse as John Cage and Milton Babbitt as very similar in this regard, since ``every gesture they make ... is predicated upon a rational, almost didactic thought.''

He sees himself as a different sort. ``I'm a very expressive composer,'' he asserts. ``For me the act of composing is, above and beyond all, an emotional self-expression.''

Adams was attracted to minimalism because it's tonal music, using traditional scales and harmonies. ``It expressed the way I experience music - on a very visceral level,'' he says. ``Tonality has this incredible potential for human expressiveness. I find it was really a sacrifice when a composer started writing atonal music.''

Critics have responded in many ways to Adams's ``visceral'' music. ``With some of what you'd call the old-school critics,'' he says, ``there's been a sort of racist approach: He's a minimalist, dismiss him. But if someone goes beyond that initial prejudice into examining my music ... I think the criticism has been more of tone than anything: Is he serious? Is he making fun of us, or is he trying to be a pop star, or what? They never quite know what to make of it.

``I think some of these more serious people are also offended by the fact that there are some elements in the audience that really like the music,'' he adds. ``This has been a century where, by and large, the best and most influential art has been very difficult and very complex....

``Ever since I can remember, though, I have been very much affected and inspired by the notion of an art form that provides access on the first experience - that is simple, perhaps, on its most superficial level - but on repeated experiencing can continue to reveal further and further layers of depth. Mozart's got to be the most primary case in point.

``This issue of something that's accessible is an incredibly hot issue in our time, and I think that's what critics come after me for more than anything else. They say: Adams's work is accessible. There's got to be something wrong with it!''

Adams discs

Recorded works by John Adams include the following:

``The Chairman Dances'' and other works. (Also contains ``Christian Zeal and Activity''; Two Fanfares for Orchestra: ``Tromba Lontana'' and ``Short Ride in a Fast Machine''; and ``Common Tones in Simple Time.'') San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, cond. Elektra/Nonesuch 79144-1.

``Grand Pianola Music.'' (Also contains Steve Reich: ``Eight Lines.'') Solisti New York, Ransom Wilson, cond. Angel DS-37345.

``Harmonielehre.'' San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, cond. Nonesuch Digital 79115.

``Harmonium.'' San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Edo de Waart, cond., Vance George, chorus cond. ECM New Series 1-25012.

``Light Over Water'' for brass and synthesizers. New Albion Records NA 005.

``Shaker Loops'' for seven solo strings; ``Phrygian Gates,'' Mike McCray, piano. New Albion Records NA 007.

``Shaker Loops.'' (Also contains Steve Reich: Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards.'') Philips 412 214-1.

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