When opera first emerged in the late 16th century, composers looked to the classical world for inspiration. Like other Renaissance thinkers and artists, early opera composers found subject material in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, bringing to life stories of gods, goddesses and heroes.

Yet these mythic figures seem to have faded with the passing of time. Composers no longer choose to write epic works based on the stories of Dido and Aeneas or Orpheus and Eurydice. So where do modern composers find operatic material that will be relevant to today’s audiences?

In 1987, composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman answered this question with one of the most important works of contemporary opera — “Nixon in China.” In this groundbreaking work, it’s not gods and goddesses who come to life before our eyes, but rather six of the most important political figures of the 20th century.

Drawing on television and news coverage, the opera dramatizes President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China with his wife Pat and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. While in the Orient, the three Americans meet with Chairman Mao Zedong, his wife Jiang Qing and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

In the opera’s dramatic opening scene, Air Force One descends upon a bare field outside Peking. Adams, whose music draws on the repetitive rhythms and chord progressions of minimalism, cleverly weaves “The Star Spangled Banner” into the score as Pat and Richard Nixon step out of the plane and wave to a crowd of stiff-backed soldiers and dignitaries.

Original footage of this moment from 1972 shows Nixon speaking politely with Premier Zhou Enlai and the officials he meets, so it can come as a shock to first-time viewers when one of the most controversial presidents in history begins to sing in a deep, operatic baritone. As he shakes hands with the Premier, Nixon belts out, “News news news news news news has a has a has a kind of mystery!”

Using Nixon’s opening phrase as a platform, librettist Alice Goodman recreates legendary moments that every American in the ’70s had eagerly followed in the evening news. Just as Renaissance thinkers were linked by a common knowledge of ancient Greco-Roman legends, audiences who saw the premiere of “Nixon in China” would have all been familiar with the President’s diplomatic sojourn in the PRC.

Goodman also moves beyond the opera’s epic scope by entering the minds of the six main characters — examining how they relate to one another and what makes them tick. After two acts of diplomatic meetings, banquets and cultural excursions, the six principles take the stage during the third act of the show and express their memories, doubts, regrets and insecurities to the audience. This final moment takes away the veil of mystery that separates the common man from the politician on television and turns these mythic figures into relatable human beings.

In addition to its importance in the operatic world, “Nixon in China” also has significance on an international scale. Since the opera’s premiere in 1987, China has grown from a stubborn Communist nation to a near capitalist economic superpower; if anything, the opera has become even more relevant as a topic for artistic analysis.

“Nixon in China” captures the moment at which the U.S. re-established relations with the PRC. In 1971, a year before Nixon’s trip, America lifted its trade embargo on China, hoping to facilitate friendship between the two nations. Now that the United States’s economic fate is inexorably tied to that of China, Adam and Goodman’s opera contains a new level of meaning for audiences in 2011.

This fact seems to have spurred recent interest in “Nixon in China.” In 2009, Naxos Records released a new critically acclaimed Opera Colorado recording of the work. Next month, Nonesuch Records will reissue its 1988 Grammy-winning recording of the original cast. In addition, opera-goers far and wide will be able to witness director Peter Sellars’s celebrated production of “Nixon in China” when the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts a Feb. 12 performance to cinemas across the globe.

Opponents of opera often complain that the art form is unrelatable and outdated. Yet new works like “Nixon in China” turn the audience’s attention inward toward society and make a fascinating connection between art and current events. Gods and heroes still exist today, yet they take on the form of politicians and celebrities. So while opera may have been transformed over the past 500 years, it still plays on our imaginations by giving flesh, blood and a musical voice to the figures we see only on television and in the news.

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