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She Gave Words to Opera’s Nixon

Opera librettos are not normally thought to be good for silent reading. But taking in Ms. Goodman’s work this way, she said, “focuses the attention of the reader on the form, the lineation, the rhythm, the shape on the page. You notice a different set of structures that were there from the beginning, but that you don’t get unless you read the text as it is written.”

Born in 1958 in Minnesota, Ms. Goodman met Mr. Sellars when they were undergraduates at Harvard University in the late 1970s. A few years later, he asked her to join the creative team he was assembling for an opera about Nixon.

“Probably the most remarkable fact about ‘Nixon in China’ is that neither Alice nor I had any experience to speak of when we started,” Mr. Adams recalled in an interview.

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Ms. Goodman ended up creating a text that was able, as the literary scholar James Williams writes in the introduction to “History Is Our Mother,” to weave together “the epic and vernacular registers of the American language and to turn on a dime, sometimes within a phrase, between the two.” Reflecting in his entrance speech on the way his historic trip is playing back home, Nixon sings: “The nation’s heartland skips a beat/As our hands shield the spinning globe/From the flamethrowers of the mob.”

“She can write spectacular pageants in the manner of the great Restoration poets and playwrights,” Mr. Sellars said in an interview, “and then give you a sentence made of the simplest one-syllable words that is equally shattering.”

Yet she’s often underrated in paeans to “Nixon” and its influence. The musicologist Robert Fink said in an interview that “the 19th century got caught up in notions of the primacy of music,” which might explain why, “of the three members of the troika with Adams and Sellars, Alice Goodman has gotten the least credit.”

But Mr. Fink said that her work was crucial to the development of American opera: “You could argue that Minimalism and Post-Minimal style had revitalized opera, but Minimalism hadn’t dealt with text setting.” Philip Glass’s game-changing portrait operas, like “Einstein on the Beach,” were notable for their lack of conventional English texts; Ms. Goodman’s librettos bridged grand opera and contemporary styles, with language that was both evocative and singable.

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Protesters outside the Metropolitan Opera before a performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2014.

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Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In 1991, the “Nixon” team created “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which addressed the real-life hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists and their murder of a Jewish-American passenger in a wheelchair. Much of the action is stylized, but the opera has been dogged since its premiere by accusations that it is problematic, and even anti-Semitic, in its attempt to depict the deep historical roots of the terrorists’ anger.

“Anything I might say about the controversy would pour gasoline on the embers,” Ms. Goodman said, adding, “I doubt I’ll ever write anything better than the libretto of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’”

The firestorm over “Klinghoffer” took Mr. Adams away from opera for years. When, after two other music-theater projects, he returned to grand opera in the early 2000s with “Doctor Atomic,” about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb, he hoped to collaborate again with Ms. Goodman. She spent 18 months working on the libretto, then quit because of differences with San Francisco Opera, which commissioned the work, over its direction.

“Over the last 20 years, the day-to-day life that has concerned Alice is the most noble and essential work being done on the planet, whether that’s supervising a drug counseling session or helping someone bury their father,” said Mr. Sellars, who ended up doing the “Atomic” text, a collage of found material. “It’s hard to say that writing an opera libretto is more important.”

Ms. Goodman never left the music world entirely. And in recent years, she has collaborated with the composer Tarik O’Regan; their latest work, a song cycle set to some of her early poems, had its premiere this year. But those who would love for her to work with Mr. Adams again will most likely be disappointed. His new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” which will open in San Francisco in November, again has a collage libretto by Mr. Sellars, drawn from primary sources.

“I feel like an old divorced couple,” she said, “who love our kids.”

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