If Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha exploded the myth of what operas could look and sound like, Adams’s Nixon In China is the work that put those pieces back together in a practical way for American composers. Like Glass, Adams and his operatic co-creators aren’t principally interested in plot machinations — we already know what happened during Nixon’s trip to China, anyway.
What’s different is that there’s more myth-making here than in Glass’s abstract operas, along with some show-stopping arias that can compete with the old Italian masters (as with the President’s media-obsessed “News,” or Madame Mao’s introductory song of herself, “I Am the Wife of Mao-Tse Tung”). Here is work that is indisputably American in character, but also makes sense alongside the European tradition. One of the secrets of Nixon, despite its reputation as one of the Most Important American Operas Ever, is that this thing is filled with hits, starting with the brass-and-drum-driven landing of the president’s aircraft in a field outside Beijing. And Edo de Waart’s first recording with the original cast has yet to be topped.