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John Adams, an American Composer and His Time - 2004-05-27

Composer John Adams is one of America’s most admired and most frequently performed contemporary composers. Although his opus includes a wide variety of music, he has attracted the most attention with works inspired by real life events. John Adams told VOA’s Zlatica Hoke that he wants his music to reflect his era.

In 1972, President Nixon made a surprise visit to Bejing to meet for the first time the Communist leaders he had so often denounced. The stuff of drama to be sure, but opera? Mao Zedong and Henry Kissinger singing lyrically on stage?

Yet it was achieved. American composer John Adams, already renowned for such works as “Harmonium” and “Shaker Loops,” created an opera “Nixon in China” out of this unlikely material. When it premiered in Houston in 1987, all of the principals could have attended except for Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai who were dead.

The reviewers and audiences generally responded well and “Nixon in China” has joined the repertory, perhaps to be performed long after the event itself fades into history.

The composer’s second opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” inspired by the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner “Achille Lauro” by a group of Palestinian terrorists, created an uproar. Many criticized it for its rather gentle treatment of Palestinians while not denying their cruelty.

Johan Adams explains what he did in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” “I gave a voice to the Palestinian nation. I wrote choruses for them, and one of the terrorist tells the story of his childhood and the murder of his brother. And I gave them beautiful music as well as to Jews and many people, particularly in America, thought that this was a terribly na?ve, even anti-Semitic thing to do. I was in effect glorifying terrorism.”

The San Francisco performance in 1992 was picketed by Jewish advocacy groups, while the Los Angeles Music Center and Opera Glyndebourne – both co-commissioners of the opera – dropped plans to perform it. John Adams often had to defend his work: “Shakespeare writes for Iago in Otello. He gives him every bit as beautiful poetry. Otherwise, it just would not have any impact or power.”

But music critics gave “The Death of Klinghoffer” good reviews. And the composer’s reputation seems to have suffered little from the controversy. Quite the contrary, the New York Philharmonic commissioned him for a new work to mark the first anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in the terrorist attacks. That composition, titled “On the Transmigration of Souls,” received the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

In the meantime, the continued relevance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” spurred its many revivals, especially in Europe, including a film version on BBC television, which is now available on DVD.

John Adams says his music seeks to document his era for future as well as present generations:“The themes that I have used in my theatrical works and the general emotional tenor of my instrumental music, I think, expresses what it is like to be alive right now."

Living under the nuclear threat is part of this present day experience and the inspiration for John Adams’ current project: an opera about Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who created the first atomic bomb. This work also draws on a poem -- "Easter Eve 1945," by Muriel Rukeyser. The opera, called Dr. Atomic, is scheduled to premiere in San Francisco next year.