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Opera has played a central role in John Adams’ growth as an artist, ever since Nixon in China burst onto the scene in 1987, heralding a new era for the art form, full of contemporary vigour and courting its fair share of controversy. As Adams celebrates his 70th birthday this month, Thomas May looks back at the composer’s legacy and offers a glimpse into his new work, The Girls of the Golden West

Adams at 70

John Adams: ‘My themes come largely from my personal engagement with contemporary life’

Whether by coincidence or synchronicity, 2017 is a double milestone year for John Adams. He not only turns 70 on 15 February, but also celebrates the 30th anniversary of his birth as an opera composer. Nixon in China was unveiled at Houston Grand Opera in 1987, setting the stage for an operatic career marked by those seemingly inseparable twins, innovation and controversy. Amid what was at the time a moribund scene for new opera in America, this striking debut offered a fresh look at the genre’s potential, paving the way – along with the work of Adams’ older contemporary, Philip Glass – towards a resurgence that has only intensified over the past decade.

The return of Nixon to Houston last month in a more recent production is just one of several opera-related events during this season’s various homages to Adams. In April, the composer himself will conduct a concert performance of Doctor Atomic in London, as part of the Barbican’s Sounds That Changed America series. And, as a grand finale to the birthday celebrations, San Francisco Opera (SFO) in November raises the curtain on one of the most-anticipated premieres of his career: The Girls of the Golden West. Adams’ first commission for SFO since it premiered Doctor Atomic in 2005, Girls draws entirely on period sources to dramatise the circumstances in which the Gold Rush pioneers of the 1850s desperately sought fortune and a new life.

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About Opera Now

Baritone Thomas Hampson discusses his influential role as ambassador for opera and the art of singing; composer John Adams on turning 70 and his new opera about the California Gold Rush; Grange Park Opera gets ready for its relaunch at Britain's newest opera house; and the indomitable prowess of the great American soprano Leontyne Price. Plus, introducing a new opera inspired by Pink Floyd's The Wall; movement and pictures in the stagings of Japanese-born director Anna Etsuko Tsuri; the revelations of Dame Felicity Lott; American opera in the age of Trump; a weekend in Boston; and our pick of the best new works coming up stateside.