Jackie O! by John Adams: A Review and Criticism

E.W. Wilder

Issue 3 * Summer 2000

The new opera by the same man who brought us Nixon in China is a mixed success. No matter what one believes about Adams's modified minimalism, one must accept that it is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary music--perhaps even the only particularly innovative thing going on. That said, the most recent of his operas slightly returns to some of the characters and themes of Nixon in China but certainly expands upon Adams's Postmodern retelling of the Modernist age.

But in order to understand it as an opera, a quick review: Cecilia Bartoli is inspired as Jackie O and Samuel Ramey villainous as the evil Mr. Nixon--Nixon here transformed into a bass to better represent the shifting perspective of the opera: no longer tenor anti-hero, Nixon must now come across as more one-sidedly evil, a feat Ramey seems eminently suited to, but this move is also important to the Relativistic universe of 1959-60. For all this, Placido Domingo is unconvincing as John Kennedy, lack of blond hair and blue eyes notwithstanding. Especially of interest, however, is Jose Carreras as Bobby Kennedy: he seems to have just the right verve to pull it off.

Of course more important than the particularities of the premier performance, there is this opera as cultural history. As inimitable and fully contemporary as Nixon in China is, Adams is here able to re-explore the relationship between media and individual, but this time from a female perspective.

Following the history of the feminist movement, Jackie O goes from being essentially the media's hapless victim in 1959 to becoming the transcendent embodiment of liberation--a massive psychedelic butterfly in this production--upon her death. She represents perfectly a release from the perpetual cycle of news-not news-news at this stage, freeing herself from the ponderous cultural collapse envisioned by Umberto Eco, hurtling herself into a personal culture in complete opposition to the mass culture encircling her. This idea is reflected in Adams's minimalist score: each stge of Jackie O's life until her ultimate death/liberation are repeated incessantly . Her transcendence allows him (for the first time I can think of) to break form and allow Jackie O a totally new, melodious and unified theme, sung through once, then once as a variation (not a repetition!) and once as a reprise.

The audience was as startled as I at this the revelatory powers of this musical Nirvana. The endless cycle of media death and rebirth is broken and Jackie O becomes a whole being, freed from the media and therefore at one with her world. Bodily death is, of course, the only way this can happen as death closes the media book on her repeating life spans (here themes) and allows the completeness of self and freedom from want.

Like Foucault's Panopticon, all players, including the ostensible antagonist Mr. Nixon, are under constant media scrutiny, as they play, not to the audience, not to one another, but in a stroke of pure genius to various large television cameras placed randomly about the stage which move their positions occasionally to represent a changing news cycle. We see in Adams, then, not only what it means to be under the media's gun, but what petty squabbling and political animosities mean in the contemporary age: all of our difficulties are nothing; the media are the real enemy.

Like quantum physics, their observation influences results: the fact of media observation determines outcomes, exacerbating problems: Jackie is unable to become herself as she is squashed by a ponderous camera in one scene, going off with a strangely silent Aristotle Onassis in an obvious and confused attempt to confound the cameras in another. Until her final liberation, the state of her scrutiny determines her nature; Jackie O is the cat in a media-driven Schroedinger's experiment.

Jackie O's increasing power over the media, represented here by her slow cocooning of her costume, becomes a sort of physics: she gains what knowledge she can, and given epistemological constraints (the cocoon), formulates ways to construct things from it, in this case her liberated self.

Again, parallels arise with the feminist movement. Jackie O goes from being unknowledgeable of the ways of Man, the man-made media, to being in a state of control over them, and, eventually in a state of control over herself. Ironically, being fully herself requires her death, which brings up the spectre of female characters throughout Western literature: like Anna Karenina, the unvirtuous woman, or at least the woman who plays by her own rules, must die. This idea reverberates in Adams's music as the beautiful aria "What was My Crime?" in which Bartoli as Jackie O asks again and again,

What was my crime? Marrying the Greek? Keeping safe my name and fame? Reclusiveness, seclusion, recursion, the evil done by perfect beasts, the selfishness of celebrity refused?
The repetition of the line inverts our power relationship with her as performer, with Jackie O as celebrity, where the entertainer becomes accuser and the observers are forced to deal with the guilt of voyeurism.

And so we see subtlety of change as evinced by Adams's minimalism, as repetition of the news cycle, as the tragedy of living feminist reflected in one life. We see in Jackie O! the opera how to go beyond our electronic jungle, how to move the movement, how to live the life of this past half-century.