December 14, 1987 12:00 PM

It is a cold weekday morning. John Adams sits slouched in the empty opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music following the score as conductor Edo de Waart takes the orchestra through A dams’ new work. After a rousing, difficult passage that leaves some musicians whooping exultantly, de Waart turns to the composer. “What’s happening in this section, John?” he asks. Leaping up, Adams rushes down to the pit. “It’s The Red Detachment of Women ballet,” he says excitedly. “Dick and Pat Nixon are watching a performance of the Peking Opera. A peasant girl is being whipped by an evil landlord who looks like Henry Kissinger. Pat gets carried away and rushes onstage to help the girl. Dick rushes up after her, and they get engulfed in a huge storm.”

The last thing Richard Nixon would have imagined when he undertook his historic seven-day pilgrimage to China in 1972 was that the trip would be memorialized in an opera. Yet John Adams’ Nixon in China is the hottest thing to hit American operatic stages in years. It caused a sensation when it opened two months ago at the Houston Grand Opera. On Dec. 4 it opened a two-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and from there it will travel to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Next June the opera will go to the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam and in 1989, to Los Angeles.

A spectacular, flamboyant, two-hour and 50-minute work with gigantic sets, a rich, tuneful score and choreography by dancer Mark Morris, Nixon in China is by turns serious and humorous. (At one point Pat Nixon visits a model pig farm while women workers sing choruses of “Piggy, piggy, piggy.”) it is also, well, hard to figure. “The opera is driving some people up the wall,” Adams concedes, not unhappily. “They can’t decide whether it’s a broad-based satire or poignant and probing.” Most critics have been enthusiastic—TIME’S Michael Walsh called Nixon “daring, complex and ultimately successful…a heroic opera for an unheroic age.” But that opinion has not been unanimous: the New York Times’ Donal Henahan complained that Nixon “works to redefine the concept of boredom.”

In the midst of this furor, Adams, 40, has been catapulted from relative obscurity to the sort of stardom attained by only two of his contemporary colleagues, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He is not altogether delighted with the abrupt change. “This may sound terribly arrogant,” Adams says, “but I’m in a position where I’m actually trying to put a speed governor on things now. In this culture you have a choice between being totally ignored or being ‘discovered.’ ”

The quirky opera that has put Adams in the untenable posture of trying to be just a little bit famous wasn’t his idea or even one he liked very much initially. Adams was attending a New Hampshire music festival in 1982 when director Peter Sellars, who had been reading Nixon’s memoirs, approached him with the idea of an opera about the former President’s meeting with Mao. Like Adams, Sellars, 30, is hardly bound by tradition—his King Lear featured a Lincoln Continental, and he set Handel’s Orlando on Cape Canaveral and the planet Mars—but Adams, while intrigued, wasn’t sure the concept would work. By the time Sellars signed up poet Alice Goodman for the libretto, Adams had changed his mind. “I realized Peter’s original idea was a brilliant one,” he says, citing the inherent drama in a meeting of two of history’s most complex leaders. The group obtained funding from the theaters in which Nixon would play, and Adams was paid $80,000 for two years of work.

Adams learned the risks and rewards of artistic experimentation at a young age. The son of jazz musicians Carl and Elinore Adams, John was born in Worcester, Mass., and raised in New Hampshire. By the age of 13, he was playing clarinet and composing orchestral pieces. He had a seminal musical experience when the first of several of his works was put on at the New Hampshire State Hospital for the Mentally III, where it was performed by a pickup orchestra of local teachers and patients. “I look back on that experience as being the genetic code of my musical personality,” says Adams. “You never knew in the course of a concert if someone was just going to go completely bananas. There was a sense of music being very emotional and meaningful, yet capable of complete, off-the-wall insanity.”

Moving on to Harvard, Adams studied under composers Leon Kirchner and Roger Sessions but dropped out of a Ph.D. program there in 1971 and took off for California. He operated a forklift, unloading boats on the Oakland waterfront, before landing a teaching position at the San Francisco Conservatory, where he fell in with a group of avant-garde composers led by Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Labeled minimalists, they rejected the complex, academic and atonal style of many postwar composers in favor of spare, rhythmic and more dramatic music. For their waywardness they were spanked early and often by the musical establishment. Notes de Waart, the former conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, who persuaded the company to commission Adams’ first work in 1980, “John was in the forefront of a group that believed music didn’t have to be ugly to be contemporary.”

Over the next six years Adams moved away from pure minimalism toward a “less trance-inducing, more theatrical” style. In the process he became one of the most widely performed young composers in the country. His Shaker Loops, Grand Pianola Music and Harmonielehre have put his own distinct, understandable, American stamp on postmodern composing. Some critics have complained that the results are simplistic, which Adams resents. “It seems weird, doesn’t it, that a person can be criticized for being accessible,” he says. “It’s a strangely puritanical attitude that for a work to be meaningful, it must be difficult. I’m very much inspired by Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman. They spoke in common language, yet there was great depth to what they said.”

Since 1984 Adams has been composing at home in Berkeley, where he lives with his second wife, free-lance arts administrator and fund raiser Deborah O’Grady, and their children, Emily, 3, and Sam, almost 2. Adams is now able to support himself with his work, but he hastens to point out that he is “not driving around in a Porsche, making the kind of money Leonard Bernstein makes.” The prospect of such rewards seems to make him uneasy. “In my profession you go from being a young composer to being a dean—there is no middle ground,” Adams says, adding that “there are people like Bach and Mozart who were often ignored in their day and are with us constantly. And there are many, many composers who were very famous in their time whom we don’t even know now. I could be completely unknown in 50 years.” With that attitude toward hoopla, Adams is of two minds about what could happen if his subject came to see his opera. “It would be just too much of a media event if Nixon came,” Adams frets. “On the other hand,” he adds, brightening visibly, “he might like it.”

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