Monday, June 21, 2010

Lives of the Great Composers: John Adams' Librettist Calls Him a Dickhead

There is an interesting and somewhat problematic interview with John Adams up at the Guardian. It's one of those articles that tells you a lot more about the author than its subject. Just f'rinstance, here is the part that really gets me:

During the Vietnam war, he dodged the draft, dosing himself with caffeine and over-the-counter drugs to ensure that he failed the medical. Yet 30 years later, when asked by the New York Philharmonic to compose a 9/11 elegy, he succumbed to what he acknowledged was his "civic duty". Has the coyote been collared and tethered?
Because I guess going off to kill and/or die in a distant jungle is basically the same as accepting a commission from the New York Phil? In terms of doing your civic duty?

So weird. The article is full of stuff like that! This passage is also kind of confusing—
Alice Goodman, who wrote the text for of [sic] Nixon in China, is now an ordained minister of the Church of England, dispensing piety to her flock in the shires; holy orders did not restrain her from denouncing Adams as a "dickhead" when their opera was performed in Brussels.
I guess this is technically true? But kind of misleading. "Holy orders did not restrain" Alice Goodman (litotes?) because she was not an ordained minister at the time—in fact, I think she was Jewish. Also, he says "their opera," but the opera in question wasn't Nixon in China, as this passage seems to imply, but The Death of Klinghoffer, their second collaboration. Also, she didn't actually "denounce" him as a dickhead, since "denounce" implies a public statement, and actually it went something like this, according to Goodman at least (quoted by Rupert Christiansen in Thomas May's indispensable John Adams Reader, p. 253):
Anyway I'm very happy I read this article because it reminds me that I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, Adams' foray into… light opera? popular song?… is coming to London! And the cast sounds great! Even if this production flops, it should be fascinating; the candid dissection of the original Ceiling/Sky productions was one of my favorite parts of Adams' memoirs. But maybe it will be a smashing success! History will judge! Here is some video to whet y'alls appetites: and there are more videos + info here. I would like a FULL REPORT, please, from anybody in London.


Graham said...

Dammit, that run of I was looking at the ceiling falls at a time when I'm a) going to be in Boston rather than London for a week, and b) I have half-a-dozen other evenings booked up. But if I do manage to see it I will certainly report back.

Grrg said...

it's oddly comforting to know that the Grauniad has STILL not hired any proofreaders. When they stop publishing stuff like "text for of Nixon," will we still recognize it as the same publication?

David said...

Sorry, not made myself privy to your always intriguing thoughts for some time so only just seen this.

You ask, so I'll tell: I came away from the Barbican/Stratford East production dazzled, even if at the end of the first half I was suffering from information overload/missing histories. The singers could all dance/act, and two were outstanding:

What I didn't know when I wrote the review, as I have only scant acquaintance with the original recording and the programme didn't tell us, was that the music director had encouraged the players to riff and jam much more than in the original, so it never sounded arch and rarely dated.

I would have gone twice if I could have done. Reception, by the way, was split down the middle. Some of the theatre critics hated it. But few appreciated how tough it must have been to master that level of vocal writing.

Dan Johnson said...

David, thanks so much for weighing in! I'm very glad to hear that you enjoyed it.  When I first read about that freer approach to the score, I suspected that it was a pretty excellent idea—I wish I could hear it, to compare with the rather stilted studio recordings already on disc.

Charlotte said...

I love it that the now C of E Ms. Goodman wrote "... I split off with Mark against John and Peter..."!
Who was Jesus, or maybe Matthew or Luke?