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Operas Ripped from the Headlines

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With the opening of John Adams's Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera, New York audiences finally have a chance to hear the work that spawned a flurry of operas based on real-life events -- the so-called “CNN opera” fad. Adams's 1987 work retells the story of Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung and thus turns a former president into a singing opera character.

For news junkies and history buffs there in fact exists a trove of operas that tackle contemporary life with realistic plots, particularly in the two decades since Nixon. Some made an initial splash and then disappeared from the scene, so maybe it's time for a second listen.


X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, New York City Opera, 1986

Real-life Premise: Composer Anthony Davis and librettist Thulani Davis examined the life of the assassinated black Civil Rights activist and one-time national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. At the heart of the story is a power struggle between Malcolm X and his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, for control of the Black Muslim movement.

The back-story: X was a family affair, with Davis’s sister Thulani Davis and brother Christopher Davis collaborating on the libretto and story. The opera received considerable publicity at its premiere, with 31 of the 33 characters being played by African-American singers.

Hit Aria: "Allabu Akbar"

Death of Klinghoffer, Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels, 1991

Real-life Premise: With a text by poet Alice Goodman and directed by Peter Sellars, the collaborators from Nixon in China, John Adams depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Mediterranean cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, in which the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer was shot and his body thrown overboard.

The back story: The opera ran into fierce controversy, criticized by some as too pro-Palestinian. The family of Leon Klinghoffer, also protested his portrayal in the work. In a particularly controversial move, the Boston Symphony cancelled a performance of extracts from the opera shortly after 9/11.

Hit Chorus: “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians,” the work’s opening chorus (video)

Tania, American Music Theater Festival, Philadelphia, 1992

Real-life Premise: Anthony Davis returns to contemporary history in this opera about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and her life with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Yet he and librettist John LaChiusa steer away from a literal retelling of the events of Hearst's life and instead offer up a surreal, eclectic fantasy on the mid '70s.

The back story: The work was a vehicle for soprano Cynthia Aaronson, whom Davis married two years later.

Hit Aria: a bluesy love duet between Betty Ford and Fidel Castro.

Harvey Milk, Houston Grand Opera, 1995

Real-life premise: Composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie Jerry depict the assassination of the first openly gay member of San Francisco's board of supervisors in 1978.

The back-story: The work was co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Despite these major backers, the opera in its original form took its share of brickbats from the critical establishment and hasn't quite entered the modern repertory.

Hit Aria: Harvey and Scott singing a love duet that ends Act I, which some claim suggests a latter-day Tristan and Isolde.

Jackie O, Houston Grand Opera, 1997

Real-life premise: Composer Michael Daugherty and librettist Wayne Kostenbaum explore the life of the former First Lady and fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by focusing on a single episode, her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, and using it as a basis for fragmentary, surreal flashback reminiscences of her life.

The back-story: Daugherty has written irreverent concert works about American icons like Elvis, Desi Arnaz and J. Edgar Hoover. His extravagant style is ideally suited to the cast of characters includes Maria Callas, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and the ghost of Jack Kennedy.

Hit Aria: Jackie’s Back (video)

Dead Man Walking, San Francisco Opera, 2000

Real-life premise: Composer Jake Heggie teamed with Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally to transform the autobiographical chronicle of Death Row by Sister Helen Prejean into an operatic thriller of redemption.

The back-story: Composed during a particularly fertile period for new American opera, it married an intense story with a lush score that some critics found undistinguished and sentimental. Nevertheless, the work has since enjoyed numerous restagings and is being produced this season at Houston Grand Opera.

Hit Aria: "This Journey"

Doctor Atomic, San Francisco Opera, 2005

Real-life premise: At the center of this John Adams-Peter Sellars opera is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the New York-born father of the atomic bomb who famously wrestled with his conscience before and after the detonation of the world's first nuclear device at a test range near Los Alamos, N.M., on July 16, 1945.

The back-story: Sellars fashioned his libretto from documentary material and lines from the pioneering American feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser, the British metaphysical poet John Donne and the Hindu spiritual text the Bhagavad-Gita. 

Hit Aria: “Batter My Heart.” Sung by Oppenheimer and based on a poem by Donne, it shows him as a tragically flawed and tortured figure.

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, Feb. 17 - March 4, 2010

Real-life premise: Based on the sordid life story of the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, it promises a staging with sex, extreme language, drug abuse and a troupe of pole dancers. 

The back-story: Mark-Anthony Turnage fashioned the score with a libretto by Richard Thomas, who previously wrote Jerry Springer the Opera. The opera will be televised on BBC4.

Hit Aria: Remains to be seen, but enjoy this sneak preview.