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Alice Goodman on putting poetry into 'Nixon'
By MIKE SILVERMAN
Associated Press
2011-02-11 08:13 AM
Alice Goodman well recalls the first time she heard the fateful words "Nixon in China."

After graduating from Harvard University in 1980, she had gone to Cambridge University in England to study literature and soon ran out of money. Then a call came from an ex-classmate, theatrical whiz kid Peter Sellars.

"He said he had come up with a title for an opera and would I be interested in writing the libretto," Goodman recounted in an interview at the Metropolitan Opera House, one day after the company performed the work for the first time. The production runs through Feb. 19, with the matinee on Saturday, Feb. 12, to be transmitted in HD to movie theaters around the world.

"I remember saying to Peter on the phone, 'Will this pay as much as a junior research fellowship?' And he said, 'If you want it to, Alice,' which of course meant, 'You should have asked for more, you silly woman.'"

Nearly 30 years later, details of that collaboration remain fresh in her memory. Also fresh are her lively sense of humor, her intellectual curiosity and her passionate feelings about theater and poetry.

"It really was the title that persuaded me to do it," she said. "'Nixon in China' struck my ear as a perfect title. It sounded right, it sounded clean, it sounded new, and it sounded like it belonged in the canon."

She describes her first meeting with John Adams, the composer Sellars had chosen to write the score, as "like a blind date." They met at the Kennedy Center in Washington, where Sellars was running a theater company.

Sellars said his decision to reach out to Goodman for the project stemmed as much from his instinct about her potential as from their experience working on a few theatrical projects at Harvard.

"When I first met her, I had a hunch that this woman was capable of great things," he said. "That's all it was _ a hunch. Obviously a very good hunch."

Goodman and Adams agreed from the beginning that the opera would be heroic in nature and not portray Nixon as a caricature. In the 1980s, barely a decade after he had resigned the presidency in disgrace, that was not an obvious choice.

"People got very angry at the idea we would write an opera about Nixon at all," she said. "And then the fact that it wasn't going to be a satire was unthinkable."

The opera takes place during Nixon's 1972 visit to China, a momentous event that re-established ties broken off after the Communist revolution of 1949. But the opera, far from being merely a historical travelogue, resonates with the inner thoughts and feelings of the principal characters: Nixon and his wife Pat; Chairman Mao Tse-tung and his wife; and Premier Chou En-lai.

Once the structure had been worked out, Goodman returned to England and began turning out scenes on a portable typewriter, mailing the pages to Adams in California.

"He would write back with comments," she said. "One in particular I remember said, 'I can't take my four-wheel drive musical vehicle up the rocky road of your libretto.'" At another point he told her to cut 40 lines from a scene.

Adams recalls making the "four-wheel drive" joke , though not the particular scene that inspired it. "Both Alice and I had done something we cared very much about," he said, "and the idea of having to change something ... was always painful. I'm grateful Alice hung in there."

Goodman, who read voraciously growing up and started writing poetry at 17, is in her element when the subject turns to the wide-ranging and sometimes esoteric literary influences that show up in the libretto of "Nixon."

First of all, there was the decision to use rhymed octosyllabic couplets _ stanzas in which each of the two lines contains eight syllables, as in the very opening words of the opera: "Soldiers of heaven hold the sky, The morning breaks and shadows fly."

"I knew John wanted couplets, and I chose octosyllabic, because it's the most flexible," she said. "Pushkin used them in 'Eugene Onegin.' Marvell wrote in them. Byron played with them. You can make them do so many things."

She drew from her reading for inspiration _ and occasionally for direct quotation. When the Chorus intones the lines "Behemoth pulls the peasant's plow," it's an allusion to the Book of Job; when Mao warns that "Founders come first, then profiteers," it's a direct translation from a prose work by the French Socialist poet Charles Peguy; when Madame Mao defiantly proclaims, "Let me be a grain of sand in heaven's eye," it's what Goodman calls "a riff" on a poem by William Blake.

The opera, with Sellars directing, had its world premiere in Houston in 1972 and quickly traveled to several other opera houses. Initial reviews ranged from ecstatic to skeptical, but in recent years it has taken on the reputation of a modern classic.

Following "Nixon," the three collaborated on a second opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," about the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking by Palestinians in which an elderly American Jew was killed. It premiered in 1991 but was promptly assailed by charges that it was anti-Semitic and glorified Palestinian terrorists. Several planned productions were canceled and the work has rarely been performed since, although the Opera Theater of St. Louis is presenting it next June.

"After 'Klinghoffer,' everything dried up," Goodman said.

But the period of composition was a momentous one for Goodman personally. Raised a Reform Jew in St. Paul, Minn., she had married English poet Geoffrey Hill, and while writing "Klinghoffer" she converted to Christianity. She was later ordained as an Anglican priest and is currently winding up a stint as chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Goodman, Adams and Sellars did eventually reunite years later to work on an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb. But Goodman dropped out of the project, and Sellars ended up writing the libretto. "Doctor Atomic" premiered in San Francisco in 2005 and has been performed at the Met and several other companies.

Now that "Nixon" has made it to the Met, is it possible the three will work together again? Goodman's reply is coy but encouraging: "Peter, John and I are just beginning to make eyes at one another across the table," she said.

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