John Adams: I won’t make an opera about Trump, he’s nothing but ego

John Adams: I won’t make an opera about Trump, he’s nothing but ego


norman lebrecht

February 08, 2017

From an interview with the composer on KQED:

The idea of a Trump opera doesn’t interest me in the least. First of all, because so much of what he does is theater to begin with. It’s a terrible form of exploitative theater, but there’s no point in trying to make theater about theater. Furthermore, you don’t want to spend time as an artist giving your very best to a person who is a sociopath. He’s not an interesting character, because he has no capacity for empathy. The only empathy that he can extend is to his family, who are just extensions of his own ego, and beyond that, he doesn’t care. Everyone else is someone to be manipulated and controlled.

The thing with Nixon was he was interesting because he was vulnerable. His weaknesses were marvelously mixed up with his idealism. At the moment in Nixon in China where he comes off the plane, and he greets Zhou Enlai, he sings this aria about being aware of himself as president, and being like the Apollo astronaut. He’s the pilot who’s piloting the ship through shoals. You can believe that there’s a part of Nixon that is actually noble despite all his paranoia and his faults.

I couldn’t imagine doing that with Trump, because there’s just nothing there except this raw, very dangerous ego, and overwhelming vanity. Maybe if I live that long, I will find some story that reflects this crisis, but I would have to approach it from an oblique angle.



  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Mr. Adams is “bigly” mistaken! 🙂 If opera characters were only normal people able to achieve empathy there would be no operas, and no opera directors, and no opera singers, and no opera public, and by the way no opera Composers.

    • Clefwalker says:

      But Adams is right not to. Publicity of any kind, good or bad, fuels Trump’s “malignant narcissism” (as diagnosed), and I for one, have had more than my fill of anything that features him in any way. Maybe in the future when we live in a dystopian universe…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. I would think that Adams would be ideally suited to write a Trump opera, he could create a new genre: Trumpera. There would be lots of reasons for repetative material and sensationalist outbursts.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Clefwalker, you fuel the President´s “malignant narcissism” (sic) by adding to this (and other?) discussion. I think we are already living in a dystopian Universe, I can’t believe what I read in the papers or see in the TV, reality has gone on Monti Python a long time ago.

      Back to the discussion: Great opera demands limitless grandiosity of the ego! Stravaganza! Spettacolo! Why not an elephant ballet? And Mr Borstlap provided already a wonderful title: TRUMPERA.

      (And John Adams’ operas are very boring, like that Nixon opera, or just tasteless like the praise of terrorism in another one.)

  • Bruce says:

    He probably gets asked the same question about every president. “Are you going to write an opera about this president? How about this one? Or this one?”

    Anyway, I agree with Adams’ assessment. A character needs to have layers to be interesting. If s/he doesn’t, then it’s like trying to write an opera featuring the weather as its main character: it may do unpredictable, dangerous things, but it doesn’t have motivations, inner conflicts or hidden feelings.

  • Old Whig says:

    What a crafty and clever response from Mr. Adams!

    At once he 1) criticizes, belittles, and demeans the president, scoring the requisite political points and signaling to his cultured audience that he’s one of them; 2) does so while defending his view of what art should do; 3) presents his decision not to write about Trump as one of artistic integrity; and 4) leaves the door open to jump into the fray at a later date.

    Agree or disagree with any of the statement’s substance, the way he composed this answer really is worth admiring!

  • herrera says:

    I composed a piece for Trump:

    Piano Sonata for Four Small Hands.

  • Macanucaire says:

    Whatever about writing an opera about Trump, I saw Nixon in China and could not see for the life of me how that opera was about Nixon or China.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I saw the thing as well and experienced it as one long caricature, and a rather boring one at that. The subject did not only not offer anything interesting for an opera production, but the music was repeating itself obsessively where no reason could be found for such obstinacy. I think Adams is much better in his non-operatic music. Minimal music in opera creates a bland sound wall over which the singers have difficulties to project something musical, and the music does not follow the emotional movements which are suggested in the text. He can write brilliantly-crafted music though, like his ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’: