It’s difficult to believe that the current run of John Adams’ Nixon in China at the San Francisco Opera marks the opera’s local premiere. Adams is not only one of the leading composers of his generation, but he is also a celebrated local hero. In 2005, his third opera Doctor Atomic was given its world premiere at San Francisco Opera, and decades earlier he was composer in residence at the San Francisco Symphony. How is it that Nixon in China, arguably the work that first brought him international acclaim, has never been mounted here? Twenty-five years after its birth, Nixon in China finally came to town, in a projection-rich staging by San Francisco Opera.

The idea for an opera about President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China began with director Peter Sellars and developed when he called upon poet Alice Goodman to pen the libretto. Adams’ music—a unique blend of minimalism, rhythmic energy, and moments of great lyricism—united the creators’ artistic collective inspirations, and the work became that rarity in late-20th century opera, a hit. The secret to the work’s sustained success seems to lie, at least in part, in its treatment of the subject as one of mythological importance rather than as a political satire or documentary effort. Nixon in China did more than survive the 1980s; it continues to win new productions and new audiences around the world.

So ingrained was the spirit of the opera’s triumvirate of creators on the work that the premiere production became linked with the look and feel of the opera itself. Even in this age when new productions and innovative directors often constitute the main reason for staging something new, Sellars’ production has made a profound mark on the work’s presentation history in the U.S. and abroad. For the 2010 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, Sellars was called upon to stage the work and a grander, more expensive version of his original vision emerged and was subsequently seen by millions worldwide through live broadcast (echoing a line from Act I: “And millions more hear what we say through satellite technology”).

For its San Francisco Opera premiere, Nixon in China was presented in a different, though also well-traveled, staging by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh with sets by Erhard Rom, costumes by Parvin Mirhady, and choreography by Wen Wei Wang. First presented by Vancouver Opera in 2010 and subsequently mounted by Lyric Opera of Kansas City last March, Cavanagh’s production revels in its divergence from the traditions that have built up around the work. Here the State Dinner of Act I did not soberly recreate the historical event, but rather inserted a tower-like podium for the speeches and small tables for the principals to dance upon once the brindisi really got rocking. A multimedia approach also bravely essayed a new way to experience this extraordinary work. Projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis graphically enhanced several of the opera’s key moments with stunning imagery. In Act II, Mrs. Nixon’s tour of sites around China was cleverly supported by fragmented images of pigs and factory work, evoking the controlled impression she was afforded on her excursions by Chinese authorities.

After exiting the presidential aircraft “Spirit of ’76” and flashing the double peace-sign (a gesture that earned laughs of recognition, but was cheapened through overuse throughout the performance), baritone Brian Mulligan showed that his Richard Nixon would be an energetic and lively President. He sang well, and his entrance aria, “News,” showed off the singer’s big sound and eagerness to please. As Pat Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova also exhibited a tendency for excessive hand gestures, though the engaging intimacy of her “Isn’t it prophetic” was a powerfully calm moment. The philosophical rumination and explosive rhetoric of Mao Tse-Tung were given Wagnerian-style heft by tenor Simon O’Neil in his SFO debut. His bulky and elderly Mao moved with difficulty, but displayed a fearsomely intact, brilliant mind through his virile declamation. O’Neill’s handling of the very high-lying part suggested a future triumph as Siegfried might await him. Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan brought appropriate grace and dignity to Chou En-Lai, though a gravelly vibrato detracted from the Premier's poetic speeches. As Henry Kissinger, baritone Patrick Carfizzi did not much resemble the man, but sang and acted the part well and believably. Making her SFO debut, Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee brought crystalline precision and terrifying vividness to Chiang Ch’ing. Brandishing a pistol, she executed a member of the ballet with a point blank coup de grace to start her show-stopping “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung.” Her conviction and brilliant performance made a shocking impression.

The performance was conducted by Lawrence Renes who seemed to struggle to keep the orchestra dedicated to Adams’ insistent pulse at the outset, but then found his stride with a soaring performance of the ballet in Act II.