Each of us has been a slave in Egypt,
Soaked straw and clay with sweat,
And crossed the sea dry-footed.
You too, stranger.
This year in fear and shame,
Next year in virtue and in justice.
—Primo Levi, from Passover
When I first encountered John Adams’s opera, Nixon in China, I had Nixon neatly stored away as disgraced and thoroughly disgraceful. Why anyone would want to glorify him in an opera was incomprehensible to me.
Then I listened to the opera.
I didn’t see the opera, not back then. I had only the CD. Yet under the brilliant alchemy worked by Adams’s score and the supple intelligence of Alice Goodman’s libretto, the Nixon I thought I knew was transformed—not into a hero of any stripe, but into a complicated human being, terribly flawed, yet even so, with moments of grace.
Toward the close of the opera Nixon reminisces about flipping burgers in the Pacific during World War Two.
Christ, it was beautiful.
I swapped spam for hamburger meat
and roped in a few men to rig a stand.
They called it “Nick’s Snack Shack”.
I found the smell of burgers on the grill
made strong men cry.
. . .
Done to a turn:
medium – rare,
rare, medium, well-done, anything you say.
The Customer is King.
Sorry we’re low on relish. Drinks?
This is my way of saying thanks.
Goodman’s poignant text is realized with delicate lyricism in Adams’s setting, which incorporates, among many inspired musical gestures, the easy swing of big-band sax. The saxes sidle in to accompany Nixon’s reminiscence, give way as Nixon sings “thanks,” then steal in again for a last backward glance. In this moment, Nixon is a part, however humble, of the Greatest Generation. He was, after all, just a man.
The magnificence of Nixon in China lies above all, for me, in its ability to project into that time and place so thoroughly that anyone listening is not only a witness to, but also an actor in, the drama. I was no longer at a safe remove from these disturbing figures: I was rubbing shoulders with them, like it or not.
Adams’s setting of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser, about which I’ve written here, affected me similarly. I paid closer attention to Adams after that, including attending operas that came my way, exploring his instrumental music, and, two years ago, finally getting the opportunity to hear Nixon in China live at the Met.
The path that led to Adams’s composition of Nixon in China was not straightforward. As a young composer, Adams “felt caught . . .”. [HJ 33]
On the one hand was the hair shirt and bed of nails of the serialists, and on the other the gushy emotionalism of Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony or Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. . . . Imagine me, if you will, an aspiring composer, sitting in a classroom diligently counting backward from twelve, tracing down combinatorial transformations, and trying to get a rush from a three-minute setting of a poem by George Trakl or Stefan George. Then imagine this same student emerging from his somber seminar, walking across the campus, and hearing from some dorm window the screaming, slashing, bending, soaring, lawless guitar of Jimi Hendrix. [HJ 33]
His mother gave him John Cage’s book, Silence, as a graduation present. For a while, Cage captivated him: “Cage was leading us into a new era of democracy among the elements of music, where any sound was of equal value and all pitches enjoyed universal suffrage.” [HJ 58] Yet all was not well in the Cageian utopia: Adams experienced “extensive cognitive dissonance over the fact that I continued to get my emotional highs from Coltrane, Beethoven, Bartók, and [Janis] Joplin. . . . “[HJ 58]
Adams continued to quest. En route, he encountered Minimalism, which ”embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.” [HJ 90] At the same time, while Minimalism has proved to be an enduring musical home for some composers, for Adams, it wasn’t enough. “As enchanted as I was by this marvelous new music, I missed the shock of the unexpected, the possibility of a sudden revolution in mood or coloration.” [HJ 94]
Adams came face-to-face with a debilitating creative block while in residence at the San Francisco Philharmonic, one of the requirements of which was to “deliver a major orchestral work.” Arnold Schoenberg, “that darkest and most intimidating of all the figures in my personal gallery,” led him out. [HJ 128]
Like a brooding, egocentric father, impossible to please, he loomed in my consciousness, sometimes as the embodiment of a mercurial creative force and other times as a lethal defoliant, ready to kill off any and all sprouts of life that might appear in its immediate range. [HJ 129]
Adams took the title for his new symphony from Schoenberg’s book Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony), “a treatise on tonal harmony that Schoenberg . . . published at exactly the same time that his own compositions were . . . abandoning it.” [HJ 129] The symphony was Adams’s lusty rejoinder, a compelling, ebullient “statement of belief in the power of tonality.” [HJ 129]
After Harmonielehre came not only Nixon in China, but a series of significant—and in at least one instance controversial—works, including the operas The Death of Klinghoffer and Dr. Atomic, the Nativity oratorio El Niño, and instrumental works that range in tone and style from the atmospheric long lines of The Dharma at Big Sur to the astonishing, rapid-fire String Quartet. Here was a composer of restless intelligence and powerful talent. The more I listened to Adams, the more eager I became to hear, live whenever possible, what he might compose next.
Last year, Alex Ross wrote about the Los Angeles world premiere of Adams’s most recent piece, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a companion piece to El Niño. At the time of the premiere, the piece was not in its current form and received mixed reviews. While Ross took note of the issues, he believed it to be “a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown.”
I had already set my sights on attending a performance when one came within reach, and Ross’s article only heightened my desire. I had to know what Adams’s unknown sounded like. I prepared for a glorious failure, but I had to know. On March 27, 2013, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, came to New York, I got my chance.
The libretto, compiled by Peter Sellars, is a collage of texts, interweaving Biblical sources with texts by writers and poets that include Catholic activist Dorothy Day, Hildegard von Bingen, Rosario Castellanos, Louise Erdrich, and Primo Levi. Collage texts are a tricky business. The result might be resonant associations or utter chaos, but Adams seemed to thrive on the challenges, of “going into a non-linear world,” where “time changes direction.”
The shifting of time is evident from the oratorio’s opening scene. While The Gospel According to the Other Mary takes as its core narrative the passion of Jesus, the first scene takes place in a city jail, where Mary Magdalene endures a night of listening to a drug addict “beat her head against the bars . . .”.
The staging is spare: The single prop is a shroud. The rest is done by bodies in movement—and with light. Dudamel stands on a platform dressed in black; the orchestra is arrayed onstage, the chorus on a platform high above. Three superb singers perform the roles of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Three dancers accompany them, lithe, expressive shadows. Three seraphic-voiced countertenors serve as narrators.
I have the sense that, when he composes, Adams is always in conversation—with texts, with musical traditions, and above all with what it means to be human: its messy complexity, its unfairness, its incomprehensible core. He searches unceasingly in the rubble of myth to unearth the real: he was struck by the many Biblical references to Martha’s cooking and doing the dishes. “Why me?” she wanted to know. Adams recounted Jesus’s gnomic reply, “This is your role.” Adams smiled, bemused. “The kind of a Zen response that you get after ten years in an ice-cold monastery.”
Adams’s use of the Hungarian cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, evoked the journey on which Adams was to take us from the start. He is not afraid of beauty. He understands fully the languages of voices and instruments. He does not fight with, but revels in, their full palettes of sound, including in his magnificent, assured writing for voice: those resonant low notes from Mary and Martha; the ethereal high notes from the Narrators; the choral work, lustrous and harrowing by turns; the sublime setting of Primo Levi’s Passover given to Lazarus at the end of Act I.
The passion of Jesus has long seemed to me so encrusted in myth that its words have lost their capacity to mean. Adams breaks open the myth and restores the living, human story: the horror and pity, the compassion and betrayal—the full gamut of what it means, and has always meant, to be human, from capricious cruelty to simple love.
The end of Nixon in China finds the principals in nighttime reflection. The final aria belongs to Chou En-Lai:
I am old and I cannot sleep forever,
like the young, nor hope
that death will be a novelty
but endless wakefulness when
I put down my work and go to bed.
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.
Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.
Just before dawn the birds begin,
the warblers who prefer the dark,
the cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.
The music is contemplative, quiet. So, too, in The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Adams chose a contemplative close. “Perhaps my ending is a revelation of my theological insecurity.”
The only way I could represent a resurrection was a cold spring morning, and there you hear natural sounds (you really do hear the frogs) . . . very childlike, but it does for me represent the resurrection.
The text, by Louise Erdrich, begins:
It is spring. The tiny frogs pull
their strange new bodies out
of the suckholes, the sediment of rust,
and float upward, each in a silver bubble
that breaks on the water’s surface,
to one clear unceasing note of need.
Jesus’s body is no longer in the cave where he’d been buried. Mary searches for him; a gardener asks if he can help. The trio of counter-tenors delivers the final word. They speak for the gardener, whom Mary doesn’t realize is Jesus—until they call her name.
In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Adams does more than embrace the beautiful and make it new, though that alone would have been enough. He has grasped the nettle of musical traditions that once threatened his ability to find his authentic voice, and he has prevailed. In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, he not only absorbs their lessons, but transforms them to create a work of transcendent power.
Earlier this year, conductor Mark Wigglesworth spoke about a lapsed tradition in which pieces receiving a first hearing were played twice. He revived the tradition at Juilliard by repeating Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Ceres, a fine new work fewer than ten minutes long. The Gospel According to the Other Mary, at almost three hours, is a wee bit longer, but had the assembled company been able to perform it twice, I would have stayed to hear it. All night.
The cast list for the performance may be found here. John Adams is third from left in the photograph above.
The beautiful photographs from the New York performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary that appear in this post are © Richard Termine and displayed here by kind permission. My grateful thanks go to both Termine and Eric Gewirtz at the Lincoln Center Press Office for responding to my request so quickly. Please respect copyright and do not use these photographs without Termine’s express permission, which may be requested here. Termine has specialized in performing arts photography for twenty years. A wide selection of his stunning photographs may be found on his website here.
Here is John Adams on staging The Gospel According to the Other Mary
For more information on works by John Adams, click here.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary will be performed again, this time at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, this September. A link with information is here, and includes video of performances by countertenor Daniel Bubeck (one of the Narrators) and tenor Russell Thomas (Lazarus).
A Spotify Playlist of selections from Adams’s orchestral works, including Harmonielehre and The Dharma at Big Sur, may be found here.
A Spotify playlist of selections from Adams’s chamber/small ensemble works, including the String Quartet, may be found here.
A Spotify playlist of selections from Adams’s choral works and works for voice/chorus and orchestra, including The Wound Dresser, settings of John Donne and Emily Dickinson poems, and choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, may be found here.
No one I note here is in the least responsible for the content of this post, but to each I owe a debt of thanks for enriching my knowledge of John Adams’s music. The Mattingly family introduced me to a rich harvest of Adams’s instrumental music with which I was unfamiliar; Dylan Mattingly went so far as to provide a wonderful “starter list” of suggested music that included brief, trenchant notes on why each piece was important. Contemporaneous’s all-Adams concert provided an exciting opportunity to hear some of Adams’s small ensemble music “up close and personal.” (Conor Brown on clarinet in Gnarly Buttons was revelatory, and we were all on our feet at the end, after a terrific performance of the String Quartet.)
Though my response to The Gospel According to the Other Mary is my own, I was ably guided in listening by some fine, thoughtful reviews. Each demonstrated not only extensive musical knowledge that I don’t possess, but also a passionate, engaged presence at the performance(s) about which they wrote. I have already noted Ross’s article about the original version of the piece. Mark Swed, at the LA Times, heard both the original and revised versions and provided interesting insights from that perspective here. Bruce Hodges provided an on-the-money comment on the spot: by happenstance, he was seated in front of me and at intermission turned and said, “I think he’s turned a corner.” For his review, which ably expands on that thought, click here.
Last, but by no means least, David Nice’s The Arts Desk review of the revised version at the Barbican in London was particularly helpful in several ways, including his placement of this work in Adams’s “canon.” I owe to Nice, among other things, the reminder of the Chou En-Lai aria in Nixon in China that I’d found so moving when I first heard it. The last word here will go to Nice, from his review of the London performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary:
Yet the much more subdued – and this time oddly believable – miracle of Christ’s reappearance in the garden . . . was always going to be the biggest challenge. Adams and Sellars chart it with spellbinding eloquence, nearly consonant chords shifting to bring the focus back to Mary and her revelation. “The chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass” sings Goodman’s Chou En-Lai in a similar moment of transcendence at the end of Nixon in China. That Adams has carried that transcendence off so differently three times – at the ends of Nixon, El Niño and now The Other Mary – would be quite enough to earn him a place among the immortals.
The full text of Primo Levi’s Passover, from which the header quotation is taken, may be found here. Alice Goodman’s libretto for Nixon in China may be found here. (Scroll to the end for the Pacific reminiscence and Chou En-Lai aria texts quoted in the post.) The quotations from John Adams indicated by “HJ” and followed by a page number are from his book, Hallelujah Junction, Composing an American Life. The quotation from Alex Ross’s New Yorker review, Sacred Dissonance, may be found here. The quotation from David Nice’s The Arts Desk review may be found here. The following quotations from John Adams are from my notes of the pre-concert talk prior to the March 27 performance: non-linear/time changes direction, Martha/Zen response, theological insecurity/cold spring morning. The following quotations are from the libretto and program notes provided for the performance: “beat her head” and Erdrich text.