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Renowned opera composer John Adams visits Mills

John Adams

Renowned opera composer John Adams spoke to a packed audience in Mills College’s ensemble room on Dec. 2.

The event was hosted by Music professor Nalini Ghuman, as part of her course “The World of Opera.”

His talk was accessible to those who had no background knowledge of opera or its history, and drew numerous laughs from the audience. “John’s talk was wonderful, and full of insights into opera as a collaborative art,” Ghuman said.

He spoke of his minimalist background and stylistic changes to opera that have occurred over the years.

He said such changes spark fierce debate among opera enthusiasts. “Next to presidential polls, there’s nothing that gets people so violently opposed to one another than opera,” he said.

Adams also introduced and played scenes from two of his most famous stage works, 1985’s Nixon in China, and Doctor Atomic, which premiered in 2005 in San Francisco.

Doctor Atomic premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in early November. Ghuman called it “a pinnacle of operatic achievement that few composers reach in their lifetime.”

Aside from students enrolled in the class and music faculty, professors from other departments also showed up.

Hazel Soares, a student in the course, said his talk was much more informal than she had imagined. “I thought he was a really friendly, sociable kind of speaker,” she said.

Ghuman said she first met Adams a few years ago, during rehearsals and performances of his oratorio El Niño in Los Angeles. Her husband, Paul Flight, was singing one of the six main roles in the production. “We have since become good friends; during my exile, John invited me to attend concerts he was conducting in London,” Ghuman said in an e-mail.

Soares said she has “been in love with opera” since she was 14 years old. “I’ve been a seasoned subscriber to the San Francisco Opera for 45 years,” she added.

Soares said something someone once told her sums up why she loves opera. “It’s the perfect combination of several arts-it’s drama, it’s music, it’s vocal and it’s scenic.”

Adams said when the performers are “on,” an opera “can be an absolutely overwhelming experience.”

Ghuman said, “Comments I’ve received in my inbox from audience members, ranging from budding composers to professors, say it all: ‘totally fascinating,’ ‘thoroughly entertaining and inspiring,’ ‘Meeting [John Adams] in the Ensemble Room, and listening to his lecture will serve to be one of the great highlights of my artistic life,’ and this one: ‘World of Opera indeed; you’ve reached out of the “world” to the firmament!'”

“[Adams] is considered by many to be the most important composer writing in North America today, and has composed some of the most successful operas in recent memory,” Ghuman said.

“It was a great joy and an honor to have John come to my class: it is absolutely like having Mozart or Beethoven come to talk at Mills.”

Adams, who is originally from New England and graduated from Harvard University, currently resides in Berkeley. He said he moved to California in 1972, when the Mills Tape Music Center was very active. The program is now the Center for Contemporary Music.

“That actually had quite an influence on me,” he said.