"News has a kind of mystery": Nixon (James Maddalena) sings after touching down in Nixon in China. Photo: JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES

Alice Goodman on writing political operas—and her late husband Geoffrey Hill

Hill, a great poet, passed away one year ago. Goodman talks to Sameer Rahim about coming to terms with that—and about her own extraordinary artistic output
August 17, 2017

Four years ago, I spent a memorable afternoon with the poet and Anglican priest Alice Goodman and her husband the poet Geoffrey Hill. We were at the parish rectory in Fulbourn, a village near Cambridge, discussing Hill’s recently published Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. That book was the culmination of an extraordinary life’s work that confirmed his position as England’s greatest living poet. He also had just been knighted—a rare honour for a writer. One of the most enjoyable aspects of our interview was the couple’s teasing repartee: at times, it felt as though they were improvising a Beckett play especially for me. But when I returned to the rectory in July, I spoke to Goodman in a more sombre mood. Hill had died almost exactly a year earlier, aged 84.

“It’s tough,” Goodman told me, wearing her on-duty black cassock and white collar. We were sitting in the same front room surrounded by portraits of Hill and photographs of his family. Milky light pierced the windows. “Nobody can quite tell you in advance what it will be like and however much you’ve been expecting it, it’s a shock.” Hill had been suffering from a number of “co-morbidities,” she said, including coronary problems, diabetes, “galloping” prostate cancer, as well as a “really spectacular depressive disorder,” about which he wrote with mordant vividness in his later poems.

When a writer dies the whole world wants a piece of him. Archivists from the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, where Hill taught for many years, were due to take possession of most of his books shortly. It would be a wrench. “They would have quite liked to have got his whole study complete with toy trains and old coins and paperweights and the contents of the bin and the desk chair,” she said. “They would have quite liked to have the chair you are sitting in—which is the chair he was sitting in when he died.” I shifted slightly in my seat.

When Goodman first met Hill in 1980 at Cambridge, she was a 22-year-old student who hadn’t read any of the 48-year-old academic’s poetry. But she had heard of him. She recalled some advice her teacher Seamus Heaney had given her at Harvard: “You have a historical imagination, and the two poets you really ought to read are David Jones and Geoffrey Hill.” When she did read him, after they got to know each other, what became clear to her “was that everything he did counted. Everything was there, everything was deliberate.” Hill continued writing until the last day of his life. “I found the fair copy on his desk, written that day, looking into the July that he was not going to see. Talking about how the texture of the leaves on the lime trees changed.”

Goodman, born in Minnesota in 1958 and raised Jewish, had ambitions to write from an early age. By coincidence just as Hill’s depression slowed his production—he didn’t publish a new poetry book between 1983 and 1998—Goodman’s career bloomed. The American theatre impresario Peter Sellars, an old friend, was creating an opera with the composer John Adams and wanted a librettist. “It needs to be in couplets and it will be called Nixon in China,” he told her. Goodman said yes at once. She flew to Washington to meet Adams—“it was like a blind date”—and over three days they wrote the skeleton of the opera, about Tricky Dick’s meeting with Chairman Mao in 1972.

Nixon in China, which premiered in Houston in 1987, was an immediate critical success. Taking recent news events as the inspiration for an opera was a new concept. Nixon, and the trio’s follow-up, The Death of Klinghoffer, were quickly tagged “CNN operas.” Classical music audiences can be resistant to anything other than familiar favourites. But Goodman’s words and Adams’s music—plus the inventive staging of Sellars and others—have made these two modern operas a permanent part of the repertoire. (They also paved the way for other operas based on contemporary personalities: Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole or Mason Bates’s recently premiered work about Steve Jobs.) Now finally, these two rich libretti are being published in full as poems to be read—along with Goodman’s translation of The Magic Flute.

Though Richard Nixon had become something of a joke by the mid-1980s, Goodman insisted that the opera “be done straight and not as a satire.” Nixon was a paradoxical figure with enough depth to support his leading role—as he sings, he was “an old cold warrior/Piloting towards an unknown shore.” (Certainly he was more interesting to Goodman than Henry Kissinger, who appears as a comic lackey.)

Before the days of email the writing process was conducted by post. Goodman would write her scenes and send them to Adams, who would set her words to music. Sometimes he would need a pep talk. “I can’t run my car up the rough road of your libretto at this point,” he once told her. She replied: “Yes you can, I know you can. Give it another try.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Chairman Mao is the most mischievously compelling character. In between philosophising about the nature of Marxism, he heckles Nixon wittily. “The inside joke is that Mao is Geoffrey,” said Goodman. It tells you a lot about their relationship that she would cheerfully admit to drawing on her husband’s irascible character for a blood-soaked dictator—and using their marriage repartee as inspiration for his encounters with Nixon. “It’s not a huge stretch,” Goodman coolly explains. In Hill’s autobiographical sequence Mercian Hymns (1971), he imagines himself as the tyrannical 8th-century King Offa. He knew his potential to be, as Goodman put it, “the oligarch, the mad tyrant, the king of power, the lover of philosophy, culture and poetry.”

Her words made me wonder if Donald Trump was ripe for operatic treatment. The New Yorker’s classical music critic Alex Ross recently tweeted at Goodman a line of Trump’s: “‘The Dems scream death as OCare dies’: a line perfectly suited for Mao in Nixon in China.” But she replied: “It’s a little florid even for Mao.” What about Nixon? Surely he and Trump are cut from the same cloth? “I think that’s unkind to Nixon,” she said drily. “There is not enough hinterland in Trump. Not enough eloquence… though Jerry Springer: The Opera offers some real possibilities.” There’s more likely to be an opera about Putin, she said, though not by her.

Equally prophetic of our own times was The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), their opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of a disabled Jewish-American man by four Palestinian terrorists in 1985. Unlike the real CNN, or for the matter Fox, the violence is not treated as though it erupted from nowhere. The opera telescopes back into the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by starting with two choruses from each perspective, of equal length. (In my recording eight minutes and 34 seconds exactly.) More courageously—and controversially—it gives the killers a chance to defend their cause in dangerously seductive language and music. Goodman looks back almost nostalgically to a time when terrorists could be argued with, when “they did not simply intend to kill themselves and the largest number of other people as possible.”

"Goodman based Chairman Mao, the most mischievously compelling character in Nixon in China, on her husband Geoffrey Hill"
The opera explores the “horrible complexity” of the conflict by looking for cross-parallels and parables within scripture—both the Bible and Koran. The Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians alludes to the Book of Lamentations, when the Hebrew Exiles returned from their expulsion in Babylon to find the land occupied by people who were no longer Jews. “You suddenly realise,” Goodman said, “the Palestinians are the people of the land, the people who have stayed there, and have had the whole political and religious history of that land to carry with them.” That chorus ends with a violent crescendo, while the words invoke the stone-throwing youths of the first intifada: “Our faith/will take the stones he broke/And break his teeth.” The violence of the oppressed is hardly sugar-coated. In fact, she said, Adams and Sellars thought she was being too harsh on the terrorists. “Not an argument that has been made much since,” she added.

Before he dies the murdered Jew Leon Klinghoffer lashes out at the hijackers: “Old men at the Wailing/Wall get a knife/In the back. You laugh… You don’t give a shit,/Excuse me, about/Your grandfather’s hut.” To write those lines, Goodman was able to draw on her own family trauma. In 1974, her cousin and his wife were blown up in Jerusalem. They left two baby sons.

Some critics argued the piece didn’t make the Klinghoffers saintly enough or the terrorists evil enough. When it was performed in San Francisco in 1992, Jewish groups protested that it was anti-semitic. When the Met staged it in 2014, a planned cinema relay was cancelled under pressure from activists.

In this new edition one troublesome scene usually excised in performance is restored to the text. Between the chorus of Exiled Palestinians and Exiled Jews we cut to a Jewish family in New Jersey. We see a mother encouraging her son to meet a nice Jewish girl (his response: “Look, Mom./You know I’ve got a bar exam”), plus a father addicted to the television news. It was accused of edging towards anti-semitic tropes but, as Goodman says, “At the time I would have said Neil Simon did much worse on Broadway.” Now she is less defensive: “It says uncomfortable things about assimilated or half-assimilated American Judaism and its relation to both faith and the state of Israel.”

While writing Klinghoffer, Goodman converted to Christianity. She describes the experience as sudden. “As I was pushing my daughter down a pavement in her pushchair in Boston, pushing with one hand, smoking with the other, it happened between one square of pavement and the next. It was quite unexpected.” Still it had been coming since she started to question her religious upbringing as a child. After being shown one appalling film of a Jewish victim of Nazi “medical” experiments, she remembered the junior rabbi saying: “Lord, cast out your wrath upon the gentiles and upon the nations that know you not.” Immediately, she thought, “That’s not the right answer; that’s absolutely not the right answer.” For her the real evil is romantic nationalism, whether it is Israeli or Palestinian, or indeed that expressed by the Maoist chorus in Nixon. “The people are the heroes now,” they sing—but we all know what Mao did to the people.

How Jewish does Goodman feel now, living as a parish priest in the English countryside? “It is a conundrum. I would say that to Christians I’m still Jewish; to Jews I’m no longer Jewish.” Before her conversion the household air was thick with early modern Christian writing. Goodman was writing a thesis on Thomas Nashe and Hill was reviewing books on Tyndale’s Bible for the TLS. Hill’s own poetry is full of religious reflections but, as Goodman said, he was “full of doubt.” She feels lucky because she grew up praying from childhood. “I never lost faith in God, even if I did cheat on him sometimes.” Now she occupies her time caring for her parishioners and preparing sermons, an art form she compares to improvised jazz. After a falling out with Adams over the libretto of his opera about the Manhattan Project Doctor Atomic, she has not attempted a full-scale operatic work.

Does it all feel a long time ago? “Not when I read the book. When I read it, it’s immediate. The title History is Our Mother,” a phrase Nixon uses with Mao, “takes me back to Seamus Heaney saying, ‘you have a historical imagination. You should read David Jones and Geoffrey Hill.’”

History is Our Mother: Three Libretti by Alice Goodman” is published by NYRB