Reflecting on 'Nixon' and the arts at Harvard

by Madeline Smith

By the end of my freshman orientation, I had already grown familiar with the common laments of Harvard's artistic community: Why are the arts so extracurricularized? How can Harvard still not have a theater concentration? Why is there no respect for art as an academic discipline? The cries rise from d-hall production meetings and breakfasts in Annenberg after 8 a.m. postering and those couches outside of the bathrooms of the NCT (now Farkas Hall).

I knew no better than to join in the gripes and grumbles. Sure, I thought. If someone is going to pour time and effort into the arts anyway, why force them to choose a separate, more "academic" field of study?

This week, I changed my mind.

Drew Faust moderated a discussion on the Loeb Mainstage on Nov. 15 featuring a panel of three Harvard alums--the composer, librettist, and director of the acclaimed opera Nixon in China, which premiered in 1987 and was revived at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year. As these artists reflected on their undergrad days, they pointed out the unique opportunities provided by Harvard's quirky but vibrant extracurricular arts community.

The panel featured Peter Sellars (director) and Alice Goodman (librettist) both class of '80, as well as John Adams (composer) class of '69. You may remember Harvard's Collegium Musicum performing Adams' haunting "On the Transmigration of Souls," a 9/11 reflection, in their spring concert last semester in Sanders Theatre.

Adams happened to reference Sanders during the panel, but in quite a different context. He recalled an incident from his sophomore year, in which he was rushing to an orchestra rehearsal he was supposed to conduct when he slipped on ice outside of Sanders, scattering his briefcase full of sheet music. Even as he recalled the extreme anxiety of this situation, he asserted the immense value of Harvard's system of quickly turning instrumentalists into conductors, actors into directors, and so on. "If I hadn't taken on all the responsibilities I did here," he said,"I wouldn't have had the career I did after."

Alice Goodman agreed: "There was this sense that you could do anything -- you were there to transform the art form." She remembers staying up all night to talk about art with friends and ultimately leaving Harvard determined to make a profession of writing.

Peter Sellars spoke most adamantly in favor of Harvard's system. "I came to Harvard because it had no theater department," he said. "Theater departments are responsible for the death of theater in America." He advocated for how Harvard teaches its students to approach art "anti-institutionally," specifically referencing putting on shows in dining halls or in the tunnels under residential houses. "No one could grade what I was doing," he said. "You have only your friends to catch you. That was really powerful. We need more of that."

The degree of detail to which my daily life and the lives of my peers corresponds with the recollections of these alums is funny, poignant and inspiring, validating the craziness we endure in the name of our artistic pursuits. "You will never see the world as clearly as you see it now," said Sellars. "Write letters to yourself for when you're 30 and 40 and 50 about what mattered to you and how you saw things. In the future, you will find reasons to not be so committed."

And so, persist in your rehearsals that run late into the night, and don't underestimate the value of the IHOP conversations that follow.

[Caption: A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of "Nixon in China" (photo by Alastair Muir).]