History Is Our Mother: Three Libretti by Alice Goodman - review by Kevin Jackson

Kevin Jackson

Aria Rage

History Is Our Mother: Three Libretti


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In the late 1980s, I went to the Edinburgh Festival for the UK premiere of Nixon in China, a new opera by the American composer John Adams, with a libretto by the American poet Alice Goodman. I knew the music of John Adams only slightly, from the BBC, and the poems of Alice Goodman not at all. About the only knowledge I brought with me was that this work tackled the unlikely subject of a state visit to Beijing by President Nixon in 1972.

It was a coup de foudre. I loved the music from the very first notes of the stately, melancholic overture. Then the chorus, representing hundreds of Chinese troops, began to sing:

Soldiers of heaven hold the sky
The morning breaks and shadows fly…

And on it went – a terse, startlingly lyrical exposition of Mao Zedong’s ‘Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points for Attention’. After a few more lines came a couplet that lodged in my head at once and has never been shaken out:

The people are the heroes now
Behemoth pulls the

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