John Adams The Chairman Dances Program Notes
It’s an amazing thing to see “Nixon in China” in the theater. Set in 1972, the opera is about the three days Nixon spent in Beijing, along with Pat Nixon, Secretary of State William Rogers, and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who had laid the groundwork for this détente-seeking trip. Air Force One (the “Spirit of ‘76”), a magnificent prop, lands (on stage, and in the music), and the Nixons disembark, greeted by Premier Chou Enlai. The opera is not just a “news” opera - events are depicted, but so are their ruminations: Nixon sings of the landing, timed so viewers in the USA can watch him land, in their living rooms.
Adams writes that The Chairman Dances was “neither an ‘excerpt’ nor a ‘fantasy on themes from,’ it was in fact a kind of warm-up for embarking on the creation of the full opera. At the time, in 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony [and Lucas Foss], but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon China [by Alice Goodwin and Peter Sellars], I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece. So The Chairman Dances began as a ‘foxtrot’ for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled ‘Madame Mao,’ firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress.”
He wrote, in 1999:
In the surreal final scene of the opera, [Madame Mao] interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow-moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, to “come down, old man, and dance.” The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at
other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives. Some of these themes make a dreamy reappearance in Act III of the actual opera, en revenant, as both the Nixons and Maos reminisce over their distant pasts. A scenario by Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, somewhat altered from the final one in Nixon in China, is as follows: “Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gate-crashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall, and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone ….”