One night in Tucson in April 1988, on a whim, I turned on a TV. I hadn't owned one for the previous four years, and wouldn't for another six, so anything I saw that night would have made a strong, if dream-like, impression.
By chance, what happened to be on PBS was the Houston Grand Opera's production of John Adams' minimalist opera, Nixon in China.
I remember having no idea what to make of it. I was 23 and had recently seen Koyannisquatsi, with its score by Philip Glass — my first exposure to minimalism. My deepest immersion in opera to that point had been an afternoon at a University of Arizona production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.
I no longer have any recollection from that night of Nixon in China's music — maybe I couldn't make enough sense of it at the time to register an imprint. What I do remember was a colossal Air Force One taxiing onto the stage. Now THAT made an impression ... which I guess is what Air Force One is for, no matter where it turns up.
Mostly, I recall feeling ill-at-ease with the idea of a grand opera about Nixon's trip to China. Was the composer a Republican? Was this propaganda? Wasn't high art a liberal thing? And wasn't opera supposed to be about the olden times, not something that happened in 1972? I would have had no qualms about PBS airing Wagner's Parsifal — but Nixon in China?
Today, I'm reading Edward Berlin's great King of Ragtime, a biography of composer Scott Joplin. It's not an ordinary bio. Before this book, much of what was known about Joplin was legend and assumption. Berlin conducted and collected the most minutely meticulous research available and his book catalogs the many questions raised by the new information. When Berlin takes a position, it is the most cautious, cool-headed judgment possible. I find the approach intensely gripping and beautiful ... maybe it's me.
Anyway, it turns out that Joplin wrote and staged the world's first ragtime opera, entitled A Guest of Honor. Its subject was the 1901 visit of African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, where he dined with President Teddy Roosevelt. (Note: A reader suggests some controversy over the subject of this opera. See comments to this post.)
The visit was politically risky for the President, according to Berlin [euphemism added by me]:
Newspapers in the South condemned the invitation as an unwarranted attempt to place the black man on the same social plane as the white man; Roosevelt's act put him in a category with Ulysses S. Grant, and he would never be forgiven. The Sedalia Sentinel printed a poem on page one entitled "[N-word]s in the White House," which concludes with a black man marrying the President's daughter.Scott Joplin seems to have had kinder feelings toward the event. That a black educator would participate in that symbolic ritual of advancement, The White House dinner, seems to have meant a lot to the composer, who was then working to elevate ragtime — widely disparaged at the time as degenerate black noise — to a high art form.
In 1902, he named his latest two-step, "The Strenuous Life," after a phrase in one of Roosevelt's speeches. He staged the ragtime opera A Guest of Honor in 1903 — barely two years after the events it depicted.
So this was an opera about events as contemporary as Katrina's landfall is today, in a form about as new as gypsy punk. In comparison, Nixon in China was conservative, portraying events of 15 years before in a 20-year-old music genre.
Working out these comparisons in more depth might bare a little fruit. While A Guest of Honor was probably meant to elevate a "low" form, some might say Nixon in China went the other direction, increasing the public's (including my own) awareness of minimalism, a high art "descending" into popularity.
And so on ... when Booker T. Washington visited Teddy Roosevelt, who was Nixon and who was China?
But, for anyone seeking to compare the two operas, the biggest obstacle would be our collective amnesia — the same universal, maddening, heart-sickening forgetfulness I've encountered since beginning my own original research into music history.
Joplin brought A Guest of Honor to less than a dozen stages across the Midwest in September 1903, but — according to the best speculation Berlin can support — the production was robbed of its receipts in Springfield, Illinois. Unable even to pay the bill for the touring company's stay at a Springfield boarding house, Joplin was forced to leave behind a trunk as collateral. It contained some of his personal effects, including unpublished manuscripts that may have included the score of A Guest of Honor. Those items were never recovered. Although a copyright for A Guest of Honor was applied for, the copyright office never received the customary copies of the score for its files.
In a book full of careful modifiers and provisional judgments, one sentence stands out for its disheartening brevity: "A Guest of Honor is lost."
Of course, various productions of Nixon in China are available from Amazon and iTunes in a variety of formats. Its memory is safe, despite having been composed in what I think of as our forgetful era. John Adams himself seems on track to be long remembered as one of the 20th Century's major composers.
Though we're more likely to learn about him on Antiques Roadshow or History Detectives than on Great Performances, the researcher who stumbles across an overlooked copy of A Guest of Honor would be remembered at least as long as Adams. Like Berlin's King of Ragtime itself, the thought puts me in the mood to work.