Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

In the second half of a two-part conversation, we hear from John Adams, composer of the Art + Ideas theme music, about key compositions throughout his career as well as upcoming work for the San Francisco Opera. Adams talks about his literary inspirations, how a meeting with Peter Sellars lead him to compose his first opera, and why he doesn’t have an assistant.

Photo of composer John Adams

National Symphony Orchestra; Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC. Photo by Lambert Orkis

More to Explore

Art + Ideas: Composer John Adams, Part 1
John Adams website
Hallelujah Junction memoir


JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

JOHN ADAMS:  I’m rehearsing Nixon and China here at the LA Philharmonic. And, you know, I come back to that piece about once every five years or so, and I just absolutely don’t know how I did it. It’s sort of like artistic version of beginner’s luck. I was so ignorant that I just didn’t know what I was doing and I did it.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with composer John Adams in the second half of a two-part conversation.

In the first part of my conversation with composer John Adams, we talked about his childhood in New England, musical education, experiments in electronic music, move to California, and early works. Today, we’ll focus on his later compositions and venture into operas, including his upcoming work for the San Francisco Opera.

We continue our conversation where we left off. We had just finished talking about how his early works “Phrygian Gates” and “Shaker Loops” had been turning points in his career. He had begun to be identified as a minimalist composer, alongside figures like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Phillip Glass, but as you’ll hear from John himself, he never really left behind his love for the classical music canon.

You were driving around the northern California landscape and listening to Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” on the tape deck, I think it was, and that began to pull at you. And at about the same time, the San Francisco Symphony musical director Edo de Waart recognized your potential as an orchestral composer and with the result that was “Harmonium,” 1981. Talk about the about driving around the landscape and that—do I remember from the reading of your book that that was in fact a major moment in your development?

ADAMS:  Yeah that was like Saul on the road to Damascus I think. You know, I’d never really left my love for the classical music canon behind. I was a rabble rouser and making crazy pieces like “Lo-Fi.” And—but at the same time I still loved the great works, probably because I grew up playing in an orchestra and my most powerful experience with music was listening to recordings of, you know, Sibelius and Schubert and Beethoven and Bach. So even though I was writing pieces in the minimalist genre in the late ’70s, I was very much drawn to symphonic music.

And I just had incredibly good luck that I met this young Dutch conductor who had just succeeded Seiji Ozawa at the San Francisco Symphony. And he was looking for a young composer and, you know, he felt that was part of his mission, was to do new music and he met me and he just offered me this commission. At the time remember it was a commission for $10,000 which was just money. I couldn’t even believe it. Up to that point, you know, I was giving my pieces away.

So I wrote this large piece with text by John Donne and Emily Dickinson and it was performed at what then was a brand new Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and that was definitely a major arrival moment because then it was shortly after performed in Chicago and then at Carnegie Hall, and I was sort of now, you know, for lack of a better term, established in in the—not in the general public mind, not like Yo-Yo Ma, but at least in the community of new music.

CUNO:  Was it meaningful that it that this breakthrough occurred or this establishment occurred with a piece that involved texts because you have, of course through your operas, become so well known as a composer of music with text?

ADAMS:  I suppose in a way it was meaningful. Certainly the text, particularly the Emily Dickinson texts, drew me in and drew something out of my imagination. And since then, I’ve written a lot of work to texts.

I don’t know, seven operas, I can’t remember how many operas I’ve written, but—and two oratorios, El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Mary, all are very much text-driven. I once had a conversation with Philip Glass and we agreed that his work is largely image-driven and mine is very much text-driven.

CUNO:  Right. Is it the rhythm of the language, is it the images that are created by the language—what aspect of the text attracts your attention?

ADAMS:  It’s every aspect to the text. It’s the rhythm of the language. It’s the meaning.

CUNO:  But to put Donne and Dickinson together is probably not an obvious choice.

ADAMS:  No. [chuckles]

CUNO:  When you think about it, you know, the kind of modern writer, and that is nineteenth-century writer, writing in isolation so preoccupied with her own imagination; John Donne on the big weighty issues of human life and salvation.

ADAMS:  Yeah, but they were both very erotic poets. There are two Emily Dickinson poems in this piece. One is a very familiar one, “Because I could not stop for Death,” but the second one was less known, a poem called “Wild Nights.” And I think I got it right with “Wild Nights,” that poem is the closest thing to an orgiastic outpouring from Emily Dickinson as there is, and I went for it. I mean, I didn’t want to turn it into something purple but I used the massed forces of chorus and orchestra to summon up that powerful erotic energy that’s often just lurking under the surface of Emily Dickinson.

[“Harmonium” clip]

CUNO:  It was about then that your mother began to send you news clippings about this young guy named Peter Sellars, an undergraduate still I think at Harvard at the time. You then ultimately would meet him and he would soon thereafter propose to you that you write an opera, and he even gave you the title, Nixon in China.

ADAMS:  That’s right, yes. Several people had said, “oh, the two of you should meet,” and I had never seen him nor seen a picture of him. He was at a music festival in the Monadnock mountain area in southern New Hampshire, and I was home visiting my parents. So I drove there and I remember this festival was in a, like a school campus and I remember sitting in the cafeteria waiting and I had no idea what this person would look like. And people would come in and I’d say, “oh that’s what Peter Sellars looks like. No, it wasn’t, no, it wasn’t,” and then he finally arrived and, you know, anyone who’s seen Peter Sellars know[s] that this is the most extraordinary person. And that was the beginning of, really aside from, you know, my wife and children, the most important person in my life.

CUNO:  But what was it like that he sat down [next] to you and said, “Let’s do an opera and the opera is going to be called Nixon in China.”

ADAMS:  [chuckles] Well, you know, he proposed this idea and he—I think two things had contributed to it. One was that he had recently been to China. He had seen these propaganda films of ballet like the Red Detachment of Women. And then I think you also read Kissinger’s memoirs, and just this all came together in his head.

And the story goes—I’ve told this so many times I don’t even know if it’s really true but I think it is that—that I was appalled by the idea for a while thinking it just was just could only be hard ham-fisted satire. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a brilliant idea, that the characters were just waiting for dramatic treatment and the story itself which is really, you know, essentially about the collision of capitalism and communism is—that’s the sort of thing that opera really thrives on.

CUNO:  How did you become confident that you could hold a composition together that was going to be that long, because to date, your compositions were twenty-eight minutes you said earlier, thirty minutes maybe thirty-five—how did that happen?

ADAMS:  I don’t have any idea. And as you and I are having this conversation I’m rehearsing Nixon and China here at the LA Philharmonic. And, you know, I come back to that piece about once every five years or so, and I just absolutely don’t know how I did it. And I don’t know how Alice Goodman, the librettist—she produced what I think is quite possibly the greatest libretto in all opera since the Mozart-Da Ponte librettos. It is just this brilliant combination of wit and deep wisdom and philosophy and history, and her control of language, you know, whether it’s Mao spouting off his rhetoric or Nixon kind of chamber-of-commerce-luncheon-style of speaking—it’s just brilliant and I don’t know how I did it. I guess you’d call it just, you know, it’s sort of like artistic version of beginner’s luck. I was so ignorant that I just didn’t know what I was doing and I did it.

CUNO:  How did you proceed, the three of you then, because you weren’t living in the same places, so how did it work?

ADAMS:  Well I think, you know, having Peter involved was critical because Alice and I immediately—well, we were communicating largely through letters and you don’t want to get into a fight with somebody who’s really good with words because they can really, they can really just nail you down and, you know, we were both full of anxieties because this suddenly became a big news item.

ADAMS:  You know an opera about Richard Nixon—a minimalist opera about Richard Nixon. So it was all over the press and we were under terrific stress but Peter was wonderful in terms of, you know, helping shape the general structure and also kind of refereeing our often very contentious relationship.

CUNO:  Was it the biggest orchestra for which you had composed?

ADAMS:  Actually—

CUNO:  At the time?

ADAMS:  —the Nixon orchestra’s—is not that big. It’s an unusual orchestra because it’s very heavy on brass and saxophones and it really at times sounds more like a sort of 1930s big band than it sounds like a traditional string orchestra.

[Nixon in China clip]

CUNO:  Shortly thereafter or maybe in the midst of the composition of Nixon in China, you write “Harmonielehre,” which you said at the time combines “fin-de-siècle chromatic harmony with the formal procedures of minimalism.”

ADAMS:  I was given a kind of composer-in-residence  with the San Francisco Symphony, which was very generously funded, which was a good thing because my wife and I had our first child to care for and I wrote this work at a really fevered pace after like an 18 month period of severe writer’s block, this piece just came pouring out of me. And the title is a German word—harmonielehre, which is roughly translated into a study of harmony or the book of harmony. And it’s a kind of one once-only experiment, I don’t think it could ever have been repeated, certainly not by me, but it is for a large orchestra and it makes use of the orchestra in the way that Mahler or, you know, Wagner could have and there are a lot of not exact quotes but citations or sort of backhanded references to the great romantic works that you see Parsifal, Sibelius, Schoenberg, but the developmental processes are minimalist.

So it was a unique piece, first performed in 1985, and it’s become not only my most popular largescale work but, I think I can say this without being contradicted, it’s probably the most performed largescale work written in the last thirty years or so.

[“Harmonielehre” clip]

CUNO:  Were you writing it at the same time it as Nixon in China?

ADAMS:  I wrote Nixon in China after I finished “Harmonielehre.” Nixon and China was written between 1985, right after “Harmonielehre,” and premiered in 1987. It took me two years working virtually every day to write Nixon and China. Writing opera is really labor intensive. I once had a conversation with Frank Gehry in which I said, you know, you can subcontract your electrical work, and your plumbing and, you know, the colors and stuff to somebody else, but the composer has to do everything, you know, we can’t subcontract anything out. So it’s just, you know, every composer I know is [an] extremely well disciplined person because it’s just an incredibly labor intensive activity.

CUNO:  Did you have a deadline?

ADAMS:  I did have a deadline and I always work to deadline.

CUNO:  It’s something that propels you forward. But you said you had a two-year writer’s block. Was that always lingering in your head—that some anxiety about another writer’s block coming along?

ADAMS:  I had the serious writer’s block after my first big success in 1981. I wrote two pieces for the San Francisco Symphony, “Harmonium” and then a more kind of outlandish a piece called “Grand Pianola Music,” and I was getting a lot of attention and I guess I got just sort of creatively self-conscious. And I was really struggling hard because I was getting an enormous amount of criticism not only from music critics but also from my colleagues. It was a very confusing time. They were my own colleagues who were resentful of the success I was having and then they were music critics who thought I was really cheap and my work was worthless. And so all that came together to really block me for a while and I attribute getting out of that very largely to the work I did with this young man, therapist John Beebe in San Francisco, who understood my problem in an extraordinarily intuitive way and sort of helped me to win my way out of it.

CUNO:  Did it help that you were working on an opera that involved collaboration with two others? In other words, you weren’t alone in your room writing to deadline and writing for yourself, but rather your writing in response to stimuli that came from Peter or from Alice.

ADAMS:  I think, you know, my mother as I mentioned was a very dramatic person and she loved to act on the stage, and I think I inherited that gene. And that when I first started writing for the stage it just I just found something very natural. It’s interesting because I basically don’t much care for opera as a medium and I almost never go to the opera. I live in San Francisco where there’s a great opera company and I just don’t like the whole thing. I don’t like performances of [La] traviata, you know, that that are all about the singer and not about the music. But on the other hand, I think opera is a wonderful art form when it’s at its best, like with Mozart or Wagner, and I’m very proud of the operas I’ve written. I think that they are a part of our American collective experience.

CUNO:  So about this time, let’s say late 80s, Peter comes to you with another idea for an opera—Death of Klinghoffer. How did you respond to that proposal? That was going to be another politically fraught or at least sensitive proposal, and what kind of research did you do into the subject to propel your music forward?

ADAMS:  I remembered the subject of The Death of Klinghoffer came up during the rehearsals for Nixon and China. We were in Houston because Houston had commissioned the work. And by that I’d really been bitten by this idea of writing operas so I went for it immediately. I did a lot of reading. You know, I read not all of the Old Testament, but I read a lot of it and I read a great deal about the founding of Israel. I tried to read the Quran. But, you know, unless you have real guidance, trying to grapple with the Quran is very hard. But I read a great deal about the Middle East, not only the contemporary Middle East, but the mess that the English made of it in the 19th century. I read about the Balfour Declaration, but of course whenever you address that subject there’s bound to be somebody who is going to find fault with whatever you say—either one side or the other.

CUNO:  And how did you feel about the response to it? As a matter of fact, there was a response to it in Brussels where it premiered and then of course there’s a response when it comes to Brooklyn.

ADAMS:  Klinghoffer was premiered in Brussels in 1991 and that was largely because there was this really remarkable arts administrator Gerard Mortier who, you know, believed in contemporary art and contemporary music as a cultural force. And he used his enormous prestige to make this happen. And I’m very, very devoted to him as a result of that. You know, actually when it opened in Brussels, it was kind of a non-event. You know, critics came from everywhere because Nixon in China had been such a big media event, and I think everybody was a little disappointed that Peter’s production was very abstract and the music was sort of alternately explosive and very long—with long periods of kind of meditational music.

[The Death of Klinghoffer clip]

ADAMS:  And it just didn’t elicit much of anything. And shortly played it thereafter in Lyon, but then in the fall, about six months later, it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn and that’s when all hell broke loose.

CUNO:  So how did you respond to that? How did you feel?

ADAMS:  I felt really freaked out because the press was very, very nasty. It made fun of the music. It made fun of our supposed political pretensions. And of course, you know, they began using the term anti-Semitic which, you know, I mean nobody wants to be accused of that. And I thought it was very unfair. Someone actually went to the Klinghoffer sisters and got them to make a statement, I think for the Los Angeles Times, that they considered the work anti-Semitic. So it carried that, you know, that mark on it. And even today there are still people that I’m sure if you looked it up in Wikipedia you’d probably find that term. I think it was called anti-Semitic simply because we tried to tell both sides of the story. We wanted to honor the Palestinian version of the narrative as well as Israeli or Jewish version of the narrative of the founding of Israel. And of course when you do that there are people who are just immediately ready to take offense.

CUNO:  Yeah, the subject itself and the opera is so poignant because of course Klinghoffer is killed, is murdered and thrown over the side—he’s bound to a wheelchair after all and then he’s shot and then he sort of inside the ship and his wife is unaware of that because they’re separated from each other.

So it’s inherently a dramatic moment. But it’s about a man and a woman whose children, as you mentioned, are still alive. So they weren’t literary figures, they’re figures that people knew and loved.

ADAMS:  Yeah, well, you know, when a person is no longer living, they are public—I mean, they’re public domain—their lives are, and the daughters, I thought they were a bit disingenuous because they criticize us for invasion of privacy. But long before we wrote our opera, there had been two made-for-television movies about the same thing. And in fact I think one of them, they collaborated as sort of consultants. So they were fine with using this story as long as it told the way they wanted to tell it. And then of course the opera—it largely laid dormant for, I don’t know, almost 20 years in the US although it got—off and on would get produced in Europe and then the Metropolitan Opera produced it in 2014, I believe. And that caused an even greater—I guess you could call it a scandal. You know, it started with an online campaign, you know, that spread rumors about it and just tried to create these memes that it was an opera that was sympathetic to terrorists or that, you know, it was anti-Semitic—actually most of the shaming was aimed less at me than it was at Peter Gelb, the general director of the of the Metropolitan Opera.

CUNO:  Did that shake you to such an extent that even unconsciously you were cautious about the subject matter of the next oratorio or the next opera? I mean, were you thinking about it on those terms?

ADAMS:  Well, I don’t know, you know, we’re in this really strange time right now where people—first of all there are trolls out there—there are people who are just looking for something to get offended by or to try to cause hurt for somebody else. And you know unfortunately we have a president who is showing how to do it. So I’m not super concerned about it, I mean it was troubling for, you know, six months to open up the Internet and see another nasty article, but they were almost always in these blogs. And in fact, you know, The New York Times, or I should say the failed New York Times, published two pieces on their editorial page—not in the arts page, on the editorial page—affirming the value of the opera. And pointing out that it was not anti-Semitic, and castigating the Metropolitan Opera for canceling the international telecast.

CUNO:  It was about this time I think that you also were getting increasing invitations to conduct. And so you were becoming a conductor-composer. That was yet one more burden on you or one more pressure on you in terms of your schedule if nothing else. How do you organize your time?

ADAMS:  I don’t organize it very well actually. You know, I don’t have an assistant. I just for some reason the idea of having an assistant of somebody who comes and, you know, helps me take care of business is very—it’s just very alarming to my psyche and so I tend to have this gigantic e-mail inbox of unanswered mail but I’d rather be alone and somehow stumble through, and be able to be master of my own time rather than to be that organized.

CUNO:  Can you compose on the road?

ADAMS:  I’m not able to compose on the road. I have two places where I compose: I have a studio in our house in Berkeley and then I built a little hut, like a little one-room structure in the deep redwoods on the Sonoma-Mendocino border about five miles inland from the coast. And I hope it’s still there. There was a tree looming over it and I haven’t been up there now in almost two months and this terrific rain storm, I’m—I don’t know if it’s still there.

CUNO:  Didn’t Mahler have a composing hut?

ADAMS:  He had several composing huts but he also had, you know, a whole staff of servants and cooks and stuff to take care of him. [chuckles]

CUNO:  Now this is turning into the 21st century, let’s say around 2003, you compose “Dharma at Big Sur.” And we have to emphasize that that introduces every episode of this podcast as it were very, very proud of that.

ADAMS:  I’m proud of it, too.

CUNO:  I read that you are listening—still listening—to Lou Harrison and Terry Riley at the time, so you hadn’t as you developed over the course of musical career abandoned earlier important to people you continue to listen to them.

ADAMS:  You know, the piece was kind of—I wrote it in honor of them. You know, I’ve tried to make—not exclusively but one of the things I’ve tried to do is to establish a kind of California identity in my music. And so Terry and Lou are really, in a way they’re the godfathers of California original music. And Terry was born I think in Colfax and Lou was born in Oregon but spent most of his life living in Aptos. So, you know, here’s a piece that imagines Jack Kerouac standing on the cliffs at Big Sur and looking west and my thinking about how the beats were the people who brought Zen and oriental philosophy to California and to the west and this music that’s kind of plangent and somewhat influenced by Indian—you know, it’s a kind of Westerner imagining the far east, and Lou Harrison was the first American composer to actually travel to the Orient and incorporate Korean music and Balinese music and Chinese music into his own.

CUNO:  Now the west is bigger than that and more complicated and even more complex than that because it involves a site that develops the bomb—the nuclear bomb and then you write an opera about that, Doctor Atomic is its title. You got a call from Pamela Rosenberg who was general director of the San Francisco Opera and she proposed that you write an American Faust’s opera. What was that like to get that call?

ADAMS:  Pamela is a remarkable person. She was a real intellectual. She had great imagination, and she made this proposition to me that I write a Faust opera and suggested the story of Robert Oppenheimer whom she felt it was a kind of American Faust. You know the great enormous intellect, highly sensitive, highly artistic person who in a sense traded his soul to the devil for whatever this knowledge of it.

I kind of resisted the idea of him being a Faust but I thought it was a great idea for an opera and I immediately started reading, and the first book I read was this classic book by Richard Rhodes [Cuno: Fantastic, yeah.] called The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which is literally, it’s a history of physics from Maxwell and Rutherford right up through Einstein. And I read many other books. And so we made this opera about Oppenheimer and I love it for many reasons, not the least of which is that many of the characters were from the University of California in Berkeley. Robert Wilson and Teller and Oppenheimer—they all taught there—Johnson.

CUNO:  Oppenheimer’s brother.

ADAMS:  And Frank Oppenheimer, who I had met towards the end of his life, he had founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco and he was a flute player and loved classical music, so everything came together to make this the ideal opera to be working on.

CUNO:  Yeah, well, I think, you know, perhaps there’s been some grouchy person who’s had something negative to say about it, but it seems to me that it’s been received with nothing but positive acclaim.

ADAMS:  I think the one criticism that was leveled at Doctor Atomic had to do with the libretto. We had wanted Alice Goodman to do it. But by that point Alice Goodman had made—she was the librettist for Nixon and China and Klinghoff—she’d made this radical turn in her life that she was born a Jew and had become a minister in the Church of England, and was so busy doing funerals and baptisms and sermons that she just simply didn’t have time to write.

So Peter had this, you know, typically radical idea of creating a libretto entirely out of original source material—what people really said what documents that had been top secret at the time and were now available, and then the poetry that Oppenheimer loved—Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita, John Donne—and turning this into really, really unusual libretto, which I have to say I really struggled with. I mean not—it wasn’t always easy to find musical expression for, you know, some letter that Edward Teller had written or a conversation between two physicists about the shape of the plutonium sphere. But as is always the case with opera or oratorio, you’re pushed and prodded to force your imagination to go to a place where it never would have gone otherwise. You know, how do I find music to express what it’s like to be on the floor of the desert moments before the detonation of the world’s first nuclear bomb. You know, I mean that’s—turns out to be a thrill you know to find music for that.

CUNO:  But you were also able to—maybe was not a Faustian character but certainly a deeply conflicted character in Robert Oppenheimer as at least the story goes on and it gets to what he’s seen when he’s seen the explosions and so forth. That was that was made for you as a dramatic moment.

ADAMS:  Yeah. The hit tune in Doctor Atomic is my setting of John Donne’s famous sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” And it comes at the end of the first act, and Peter did this fabulous setting of it where were the bomb, you know, the bomb was this big sphere and it was suspended from a derrick. And they put a—like a shroud around it at night, I guess to protect it from the wind or whatever.

So there’s something weirdly funereal about it. And Oppenheimer is alone and he sings this aria which is almost like a baroque passacaglia in which he admits his terrible feeling of having lost his soul and pleading God to come and beat him and knock him down so that he may rise again. And I have to confess that we sort of imported guilt to Oppenheimer at a time when he didn’t have it. He was very arrogant and very pleased with himself in 1945. It was only later in the ’50s that he began to realize the devastation and, you know, spent the rest of his life trying to convince people to disarm.

[Doctor Atomic clip]

CUNO:  Now you’ve received another commission from the San Francisco Opera and it’s called Girls of the Golden West and I think it premieres this autumn, is that right?

ADAMS:  Yes.

CUNO:  Yeah. So tell us what that’s about and tell us the process by which you came to that, because I think it also involves deep research into documents, both perhaps by yourself but by Peter certainly.

ADAMS:  This is a rather snarky title, Girls of the Golden West, because there’s a Puccini opera called La fanciulla del West, which translates whenever it’s done in English speaking countries as “girl of the golden west.” And, you know, Peter and I were kicking around ideas for operas and he mentioned that he’d been asked by La Scala to stage the Puccini, and Puccini is his least favorite composer and he felt that the story, the way it was presented, was kind of like Jack London. You know, it was a period piece but it told a sort of whitewashed version of the gold rush. So we both did a lot of deep research, which is one of the reasons I love doing these pieces because I get to read so deeply. And again Peter compiled this libretto from original source material. And, you know, the gold rush was really the first sort of media event. Every step along the way, it was being covered in journalism back east. Of course most of the information was wrong or, you know, wildly exaggerated and a lot of people came out here thinking that they would become very rich very easily and of course that didn’t happen.

And I’ve been working—I haven’t finished it quite but I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half and all during the course of working on this I’m dealing with these stories of the gold rush, you know, horrible nativism and jingoism and racist attacks on Mexicans and Chinese and Native Americans and Chileans and, you know, even the few freed slaves that came out here. And I’m following the, you know, the presidential campaign and people screaming and yelling “lock her up” and I’m finding that, you know, this is a perfect time to write this opera because here we are—I live not far from Silicon Valley where there is—it’s like the new gold rush. You know, suddenly a person has some stupid app on your iPhone that’s valued at forty billion dollars and it’s just unreal—it’s the fool’s gold but you know these people in 1850 thought they were going to get rich on.

CUNO:  Will the music sound western?

ADAMS:  You know, it’s funny, what I learned is that [in] 1850, the country was really raw and the piano music or the kind of music that people would perform was pretty awful, you know, it was like bad European parlor music.

And most of it was kind of folk songs. But what I did is I found a lot of texts—gold rush texts—at California state library in Sacramento and I just ignored the tunes. Most of the tunes were familiar anyway, you know, “Oh Susannah” or “Pop Goes the Weasel.” And I’ve written my own music to it. The music is—it’s kind of gnarly and, you know, more stripped down, you know, the way life probably was in a mining camp in 1850.

CUNO:  When does it open?

ADAMS:  It opens in November in San Francisco and I think it’s going to be controversial in the sense that it’s not really an opera, it’s almost more like a show. You know, there are these choruses where I set these Gold Rush lyrics that, you know, they’re really the kind of kickass energy, raw, hard boiled, and yet at the same time, they tell fantastic stories of people’s lives.

CUNO:  Yeah well we can’t wait to see it, can’t wait to hear it. Congratulations on that.

ADAMS:  Thank you.

CUNO:  And everything else. And thanks so much for the time.

ADAMS:  It’s been great, Jim.

CUNO:  It’s been great seeing you. Happy Birthday.

ADAMS:  OK. Thanks.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

JOHN ADAMS:  I’m rehearsing Nixon and China here at the LA Philharmonic. And, you ...

Music Credits

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »