John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’ at the Metropolitan Opera, New York
John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’ at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (2011)

The life of Alan Turing, mathematician and computer pioneer, reads like a work of fiction. He broke the Germans’ wartime Enigma code, which revealed Hitler’s strategy to the Allies – and he also broke the codes of society: in 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency and “treated” for his homosexuality with chemical castration. Two years later, he was found dead, a poisoned apple by his bedside. He was 41.

It could be a novel; it’s already a film (The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is due for release this year), and now it’s been set to music. Last week a new oratorio by British composer James McCarthy premiered at London’s Barbican Centre. Codebreaker is one of a number of current works inspired by Turing’s life, with the Pet Shop Boys’ A Man from the Future scheduled for this year’s BBC Proms and the premiere of Nico Muhly’s Sentences due in June 2015.

Turing’s story is topical, not only because this year marks the 60th anniversary of his death but also in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ and the National Security Agency in the US. In McCarthy’s words, “there are resonances today with the way that Turing was hounded to his death by the security services of this country.”

Relevance is a powerful motivation for McCarthy. Two years ago he completed 17 Days, a work based on the plight of the Chilean miners trapped underground in 2010, and he is now working on a piece about teenage Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. As he says: “With music, what you’re writing about is love, death and resurrection and for that, you don’t need to go to the mists of time.”

The young Alan Turing in the 1920s
The young Alan Turing in the 1920s

Composers are increasingly profiling near-contemporary figures – although it’s a practice that dates back at least as far as Verdi. La traviata was revolutionary in its time for spotlighting Alexandre Dumas’ recently dead lover, while Weimar Germany produced Zeit­oper – “opera of the time” – in the 1920s.

But the trend really took off with Nixon in China in 1987. John Adams’ opera about the president’s historic visit to China was widely viewed as a masterpiece, heralding a new dynasty of operatic protagonists including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert Oppenheimer and Harvey Milk – and the list continues to expand. This summer brings the European premiere of Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter, Robert Wilson’s new opera about the African-American slave who became a renowned artist. Even Prince Harry has been deemed opera-worthy by American composer Hannah Lash, whose Stoned Prince launched in New York last year.

Dubbed docu-operas, these pieces tend to generate hype. “They’re going to be something that the audience will go and see and be interested in. And quite often they’re not the people who will go to a Verdi opera,” says Sally Groves, director of Schott Music, which published Stoned Prince and Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk. But can these works stand the test of time? Do their characters resonate? And can their music and libretti work on their own terms, independently of their subject-matter?

Nixon in China achieves all three, asking timeless questions about our ability to coexist peacefully, with characters that are multi-layered and archetypal. But what really carries the show is the driving force of Adams’ music, which gives the plot an epic dimension. Regardless of its political agenda, this opera remains a compelling piece of art.

Ramon Tikaram as ‘Gaddafi'
Ramon Tikaram as ‘Gaddafi: A Living Myth’ at ENO, London (2006)

Not everyone, however, gets the alchemy right. Last year, Philip Glass’s Walt Disney biopic The Perfect American left many critics cold, largely due to its stodgy libretto; in 2006, Asian Dub Foundation’s Gaddafi: A Living Myth made little musico-dramatic sense of the Libyan ruler’s life. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s much-hyped Anna Nicole (about the ill-fated Texan model who married an oil tycoon 63 years her senior) sold out when it opened at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011. Many loved it but some commentators wondered whom it was trying to shock, so flagrantly did it trade on sex and strong language. Others saw it less as an opera than a would-be musical.

For David Pountney, artistic director of Welsh National Opera, it was a contemporary opera that imitated the standard 19th-century format, “where you spend three acts watching a woman behaving badly on the condition that she’s seen to die a horrible, perverse death in the last act, thereby giving everybody a moral message.” He thinks the trajectory of Anna Nicole Smith’s life should have been reimagined in the play. “She should have survived and become president of the United States,” he says. “That would have been the real shock.”

But how much artistic licence are we entitled to? John Fulljames, associate director of opera at the Royal Opera, believes that “opera deals with emotional truth, not factual truth”, which is obvious in Nixon in China. At a time when Nixon was widely ridiculed, Adams and his co-authors didn’t focus on the Watergate affair – instead, they credited him for having the foresight to visit communist China, dignifying him with a three-dimensional portrayal.

Eva-Marie Westbroek in the title role of ‘Anna Nicole’
Eva-Marie Westbroek in the title role of ‘Anna Nicole’ at the Royal Opera House, London (2011)

Likewise, Adams’ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, gives credence to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tony Palmer, the film-maker who directed Death of Klinghoffer for the Finnish National Opera in 2001, says: “John’s genius was to take a real incident which had mythic elements in it, and apparent baddies and goodies, who turn out to be not so baddies and not so goodies.”

Similarly, McCarthy’s Codebreaker challenges preconceptions. It makes scant reference to mathematics and computing – the two fields for which Turing is best known. Instead, by interweaving music with poetry by Sara Teasdale, Oscar Wilde, Wilfred Owen and others, McCarthy has focused on Turing’s emotional world, in particular his early love for fellow school pupil Christopher Morcom.

“Music is good at expressing all the stuff that goes on in our heads that we don’t have words for,” says McCarthy. “What it’s not good at is doing a biographical entry in a dictionary.”

Codebreaker received a standing ovation at its performance last week but whether it stands the test of time remains to be told. On the strength of its moving text and music, it may well do, even if its enormous choruses are redolent of Klinghoffer. It is heart-on-sleeve, sometimes unashamedly so, with a passion that is intoxicating. And whatever its longevity, it deserves credit for seeking to transmogrify events of our time into something universally powerful. As Tony Palmer says: “In the end that’s what great artists should do.”

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