The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

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Talking today with someone over a Work Christmas lunch. Turkey. Roast taters. The smallest chipolata I have ever seen.

"So, do you like John Adams, then?"

I've always thought that Adams' best work has been his instrumental pieces. It will be the operas, especially Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer that will carry him through posterity, but his best, most subtle work has been done without words. For all its impact on stage, Nixon just doesn't work as an opera, no matter how much I would like it to. It's too thin for one thing. I can't say whether Klinghoffer works operatically - although musically it is the better piece - since these things are almost never, ever, staged here in dear old London*, but having at least seen Nixon in full glory, I just don't think it's very good - and not a patch on works like Shaker Loops, Phrygian Gates or the Chamber Symphony.

And, as you do, I've been thinking through my responses to the lunchtime question. The big sell of Nixon in China - like The Death of Klinghoffer - is that it is an opera about recent historical events. More than this, it actually sets recent history. The intention is to recast Nixon, Mao, Kissinger and the rest of them as heroes as operatic as Tristan, Gawain or Don Juan. Adams has said as much himself. These major historical figures are operatic subjects as legitimate as anyone from myth or legend.

Fine. Except that the others are mythological figures. So you can bend their story how you like in order to serve your libretto and your music. Adams, on the other hand, has decided to play his music down in order to allow his characters to speak, and for the realism of the situation to come through. Indeed, a good deal of the libretto - written by Alice Goodman - is based on the documented speeches of those present. This she has put into rhyming couplets throughout; the idea is to achieve the mythologising, distancing effect Adams hopes to achieve himself. An old trick, but an effective one; Adams seems not to have found an equivalent for his music, so in actual fact the opera plays out like a stylised newsreel, and not the stuff of mythological fantasy.

Which is a genuine shame. Because, undoubtedly Nixon's visit to China in 1972 at the height of Cold War tensions was a tremendous political act, a key moment in 20th-century history. The meeting of two extraordinary men. But, because of Adams' - and Goodman's - adherence to the factual details the opera is, it seems, trapped in that historical moment. Adams himself has expressed the wish that those watching it should be able to see the images of Nixon's visit, remember the newpaper and TV reports. But most people in the audience haven't. Certainly very few people who weren't alive at the time will know the images and reports Adams wants us to see. We are watching these events unfold on the stage, and we want the stage to tell us why they were important. Wagner's Ring makes sense to people who haven't read the appropriate Norse mythology because it raises itself into a self-contained mythological world. Nixon in China doesn't do this - it is intended to lie as a partial commentary, partial retelling, over the events themselves.

Maybe a certain amount of mythologising is necessary, and unavoidable if art is to successfully retell historical events for an audience beyond their own timespan. Maybe this is part of the reason for the relative lack of post-11th September art. The temptation is still to be too documentary.

Is it possible to mythologise these things so quickly? I don't know about only two or three years after the event, but it seems to me that you should never underestimate how fast things can pass into the kind of mythology that art can use. How quickly events can be reduced to a 'neutral level' set of symbols, images, stories, sounds. The film Good Bye, Lenin! dealt with exactly this question. The crossroads between nostalgia and truth, fiction and fact, myth and document. The whole film was overloaded with archival footage of events around, on, through, the Berlin Wall in 1989-90, as well as accompanying footage of Germany winning World Cup 1990, Chris-bloody-Waddle, etc. etc. We were supposed to connect intimately, emotionally with this footage, just as Adams wants his audience to see Nixon on stage; and yet at the same time, we were being shown the unreality of such things, the manner in which stories and lives are put together (and what a setting is East Berlin for this!), the implication that such a detail as the right jar of pickles has for constructing that story - and the ease with which unwanted elements (Coke adverts, TV, your neighbours) can be subverted to, or erased from, the desired myth.

And the film's final message? We're all looking for that myth. It's all any of us want in the end.

*Although I read recently that the revamped ENO are putting Nixon on some time next year, so let's see.

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