History is Our Mother: Three LibrettiNixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Magic Flute
by Alice Goodman, introduction and historical notes by James Williams
An NYRB Classics OriginalNixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer played a crucial role in bringing opera back to life as a contemporary art form, and they have been popular—and, in the case of Klinghoffer, highly controversial—ever since they were first staged by the director Peter Sellars in the eighties and nineties. Both operas were conceived from the start as collaborations between composer and writer, and their power is due as much to the dazzlingly constructed and deeply felt libretti of the poet Alice Goodman as they are to John Adams’s music. Nixon in China is a story, at once heroic, comic, and unnerving, of men and women making history and of their different conceptions of what history is and what it means to makes it. Klinghoffer, by contrast, has at its center the tragedy of an innocent man condemned at the cost of his life to play a part in history. History Is Our Mother, which takes its title from a line sung by the title character in Nixon in China, brings Goodman’s two libretti together for the first time in book form. Included alongside Goodman’s no less inspired translation of Emanuel Schikaneder's famous libretto to The Magic Flute, these vivid dramas of character and searching meditations on fate are here revealed as among the most original, ambitious, and accomplished poetic achievements of our time.
Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer are works of wit and judgement exercised in the contexts of political gravity which few poets writing English these days face on such a scale.... The Magic Flute sparkles and rings true as no text for this music, not even Auden's, has managed to do.
—Eric Griffiths, Times Literary Supplement
The libretto [for Nixon in China], by Alice Goodman, offered moments of wry humor and poignancy, dealing in a mock-mythic style with President Nixon’s peacemaking trip to China in 1972.
—Donal Henahan, The New York Times
The Death of Klinghoffer [is a] raw, penetrating, strangely mystical work...Ms. Goodman’s poetic libretto, though often enigmatic, is powerfully so. Parts of the text remind me of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, which can seem profound and full of richly detailed imagery, even when the meaning is obscure.
—Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
Goodman’s insightful and lyrical libretto probed into the deep meaning of world events and, most important of all, revealed the tantalizing—and tormented—inner workings of the men and women behind them.
—Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times
[Nixon in China is] a mythical and elusive depiction of Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing to meet with his erstwhile adversary Mao Zedong...Alice Goodman’s gnomic...libretto [is] a compilation of shadowy maxims and splendidly calculated banalities.
—Joshua Kosman, SFGate
Among the glories of Goodman’s libretto [for Nixon in China] is the dream-like poetic quality with which she imbues all the characters, ennobling them while maintaining their particular visions and quirks. Her text is a meditation on history, politics and culture, and at the same time a keen dramatization of individuals caught up in a momentous event.
—Mike Silverman, Associated Press