NY Times Article on Alice Goodman

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NY Times Article on Alice Goodman

Post by lennygoran » Wed Aug 23, 2017 8:10 am

She Gave Words to Opera’s Nixon

By THOMAS MAY AUG. 22, 2017

When “Nixon in China” had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 22, 1987, there had never been anything quite like it. No previous American opera — perhaps no opera, ever — had so boldly dealt with recent political history. The topic, President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, was still the subject of international conversation 15 years later, and many of its principal characters were still very much alive and contentious.

The opera caused a sensation. John Adams, its composer, and Peter Sellars, its director, went on to become two of the most prominent figures in contemporary music.

But Alice Goodman, who wrote its enigmatic, poetic libretto, seemed to vanish from the scene after her subsequent collaboration with Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars, the still-controversial “Death of Klinghoffer.” Raised Jewish, she converted to Christianity in 1989 and in 2001 was ordained an Anglican priest in England. Now 59, she serves around 6,000 people in a group of parishes in Cambridgeshire, driving a battered car festooned with flinty, expletive-strewn bumper stickers with mottos like “Doing my part to piss off the religious right.”

“I never drifted away from music,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t get work commissioned, so I did what members of my family do when that kind of thing happened: I started another degree. By 1997, I was being offered commissions and collaborations again, but none of them were particularly interesting to me, and my ideas didn’t interest my colleagues.”

Yet new attention is being paid to Ms. Goodman’s contribution to a pair of the most influential music-theater works of the late 20th century. “History Is Our Mother,” its title drawn from one of Nixon’s lines in the opera and published this summer by New York Review Books, gathers the two librettos she wrote for Mr. Adams with her English translation of “The Magic Flute,” prepared for a British production in 1991.


Opera librettos are not normally thought to be good for silent reading. But taking in Ms. Goodman’s work this way, she said, “focuses the attention of the reader on the form, the lineation, the rhythm, the shape on the page. You notice a different set of structures that were there from the beginning, but that you don’t get unless you read the text as it is written.”

Born in 1958 in Minnesota, Ms. Goodman met Mr. Sellars when they were undergraduates at Harvard University in the late 1970s. A few years later, he asked her to join the creative team he was assembling for an opera about Nixon.

“Probably the most remarkable fact about ‘Nixon in China’ is that neither Alice nor I had any experience to speak of when we started,” Mr. Adams recalled in an interview.


Ms. Goodman ended up creating a text that was able, as the literary scholar James Williams writes in the introduction to “History Is Our Mother,” to weave together “the epic and vernacular registers of the American language and to turn on a dime, sometimes within a phrase, between the two.” Reflecting in his entrance speech on the way his historic trip is playing back home, Nixon sings: “The nation’s heartland skips a beat/As our hands shield the spinning globe/From the flamethrowers of the mob.”

“She can write spectacular pageants in the manner of the great Restoration poets and playwrights,” Mr. Sellars said in an interview, “and then give you a sentence made of the simplest one-syllable words that is equally shattering.”

Yet she’s often underrated in paeans to “Nixon” and its influence. The musicologist Robert Fink said in an interview that “the 19th century got caught up in notions of the primacy of music,” which might explain why, “of the three members of the troika with Adams and Sellars, Alice Goodman has gotten the least credit.”

But Mr. Fink said that her work was crucial to the development of American opera: “You could argue that Minimalism and Post-Minimal style had revitalized opera, but Minimalism hadn’t dealt with text setting.” Philip Glass’s game-changing portrait operas, like “Einstein on the Beach,” were notable for their lack of conventional English texts; Ms. Goodman’s librettos bridged grand opera and contemporary styles, with language that was both evocative and singable.


In 1991, the “Nixon” team created “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which addressed the real-life hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists and their murder of a Jewish-American passenger in a wheelchair. Much of the action is stylized, but the opera has been dogged since its premiere by accusations that it is problematic, and even anti-Semitic, in its attempt to depict the deep historical roots of the terrorists’ anger.

“Anything I might say about the controversy would pour gasoline on the embers,” Ms. Goodman said, adding, “I doubt I’ll ever write anything better than the libretto of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’”

The firestorm over “Klinghoffer” took Mr. Adams away from opera for years. When, after two other music-theater projects, he returned to grand opera in the early 2000s with “Doctor Atomic,” about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb, he hoped to collaborate again with Ms. Goodman. She spent 18 months working on the libretto, then quit because of differences with San Francisco Opera, which commissioned the work, over its direction.


“Over the last 20 years, the day-to-day life that has concerned Alice is the most noble and essential work being done on the planet, whether that’s supervising a drug counseling session or helping someone bury their father,” said Mr. Sellars, who ended up doing the “Atomic” text, a collage of found material. “It’s hard to say that writing an opera libretto is more important.”

Ms. Goodman never left the music world entirely. And in recent years, she has collaborated with the composer Tarik O’Regan; their latest work, a song cycle set to some of her early poems, had its premiere this year. But those who would love for her to work with Mr. Adams again will most likely be disappointed. His new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” which will open in San Francisco in November, again has a collage libretto by Mr. Sellars, drawn from primary sources.

“I feel like an old divorced couple,” she said, “who love our kids.”


https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/arts ... front&_r=0

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