In 1987, the art of opera changed decisively. John Adams’s opera Nixon in China was so unlike the usual run of new operas in its concept that many people, on first hearing about it, assumed it had to be a joke of some sort. Turning the preposterous and reviled figures of Richard and Pat Nixon and Henry Kissinger into operatic heroes — they were all still alive in 1987 — seemed preposterously at odds with the dignity of the form. It was entirely serious. Though the concept was in part that of Peter Sellars, the opera director, the exquisite refinement of treatment was that of the librettist, Alice Goodman. Unlike almost all contemporary operas, it quickly spread across the world. A second opera by Adams and Goodman, The Death of Klinghoffer, took on a still more newsworthy real-life subject, the murder of a Jewish-American tourist on a hijacked cruise liner by Palestinian terrorists. Huge controversy followed this one, but the high integrity of the writing, and the transformation of sordid claims and counterclaims into the most elevated art, showed two artists of great power.
Goodman’s two libretti for Adams have now been issued as a New York Review Books Classics Original, along with a fine translation by her of The Magic Flute. Surprisingly, since 1991, she has written no more original libretti. Adams has written other operas since, sometimes with the same contemporary-historical subjects, including an opera about the creation of the atomic bomb, and one about the Los Angeles earthquake. The best of them remain the two with Goodman.
Before Nixon in China, new operas were almost invariably adaptations of a play, a short story, or even a novel. Benjamin Britten’s set an influential example after 1945; five of them are based on famous short stories, two on classic poems, and one on a play by Shakespeare.