Opera and Music Theatre Define Adams’s Output

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


In this blog, we take a look at the works of one of America’s most prolific and popular composers, John Adams. While best known for his orchestral and operatic works, Adams’s output also includes a significant amount of chamber music and solo piano pieces.


Opera and music theatre are perhaps the two most important genres of Adams’s output. His operas include “Nixon in China” (1987), “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991), and “Doctor Atomic” (2005). His music theatre works include “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” (1995) and “A Flowering Tree” (2006).


Adams’s Nixon in China premiered in 1987 and was an important early work in his career; it is an opera in three acts about United States President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. The piece is based on a 1962 play by John Adams’s wife, Alice Goodman, and depicts the event from multiple perspectives.

“Nixon in China”

Nixon in China is a three-act opera by John Adams, with a libretto by Alice Goodman. The work’s central characters are President Richard Nixon and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, who in 1972 became the first American President to visit the People’s Republic of China. Goodman’s libretto is drawn from historical sources relating to Nixon’s 1972 visit, including Nixon’s own memoirs, White House transcripts of his conversations with Chinese officials, news reports, and chapters from MargaretMacMillan’s Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War.

The opera was conceived as a collaboration between Adams and director Peter Sellars, who had previously worked together on the 1990 opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Sellars directed critically acclaimed productions of the work in 1987 (for Houston Grand Opera) and 2007 (at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City). In 2011, an opera based on the events of the Watergate scandal, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, premiered at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“The Death of Klinghoffer”

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is an opera by John Adams, co-librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars. The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, in which an American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered.

The work has been criticized for its perceived sympathetic portrayal of the hijackers and its handling of the subject matter. However, it has also been praised for its musicality and Adams’s innovative use of choral writing.

“Doctor Atomic”

“Doctor Atomic” is an opera in two acts and an epilogue, composed by John Adams with a libretto by Peter Sellars. The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and premiered there in October 2005. The story explores the final days leading up to the first atomic bomb test in 1945, focusing on the medical team led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb”).

Music Theatre

Adams is not primarily a “theater composer” in the usual sense of the operatic or Broadway Musicals. Rather, his works in these genres are connected by a unifying theatrical impulse that is protean in its manifestations. This impulse has found operatic, choral, video, and “music theater” expression in such works as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and My Life.


Adams’s love of music theatre is evident in his opera “Harmonium,” which was inspired by the work of American poet Wallace Stevens. “Harmonium” is a three-act opera that tells the story of a man who is torn between his love for his wife and his passion for music. The opera was Adams’s first attempt at writing a full-length work, and it received mixed reviews when it premiered in 1986.

“Chamber Symphony”

One of Adams’s most important works, “Chamber Symphony” was inspired by Schoenberg’s “Serenade for Winds.” It is a chamber work for 14 instruments, divided into 3 groups. The first group includes flute, clarinet, and two violins. The second group consists of four violas, and the third group has four cellos and two basses. The work is in three movements, fast-slow-fast, and lasts about 20 minutes.

“I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky”

“I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” is a musical with a book by Peter Quilter, music by UCLA professor Randall Couch, and lyrics by Finish writer Juha Virtanen. The piece is based on the life of American painter Richard Diebenkorn. It had its world premiere at the UCLA Faculty Theater in October 2014.

The musical was conceived and developed over a period of ten years by its three creators. The team drew heavily on Diebenkorn’s own words, as expressed in his journals, letters, interviews, and other writings, to create a dramatic arc that would capture the essential elements of his life and work.

The result is a multi-faceted portrait of an artist who is both intensely private and deeply engaged with the world around him. Diebenkorn’s struggle to maintain his creative integrity in the face of commercial pressure is set against a backdrop of social and political change in twentieth-century America.

Although “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” is primarily an opera, it also includes elements of dance, spoken word, and visual projections. The score makes use of a wide range of musical styles, from jazz to rock to classical.

The world premiere production was directed by Michael Arden and featured a cast of thirty-two singers, dancers, and actors. It was conducted by James Conlon and distributed over nine performances at UCLA’s Faculty Theater from October 23 – November 1, 2014.


Adams’s work in opera and music theatre, though occupying a relatively small percentage of his overall output, has been some of his most influential and innovative. His opera Nixon in China (1987), for example, helped to pioneer the “regietheater” tradition in which the director is given broad interpretive freedom. In more recent years, Adams has turned his attention to religious subjects, such as The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and El Niño (2000). These works have been less warmly received than his earlier operas, but they continue to exhibit Adams’s trademark combination of traditional musical forms and contemporary sensibilities.

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