AN opera inspired by Richard Nixon’s visit to China returns to Scottish stages for the first time in more than 30 years this month.

Scottish Opera’s premiere of Nixon in China, a collaboration by celebrated US minimalist composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, takes place at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal before transferring to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, where it made its UK debut at the International Festival in 1988.

Then heralded as a landmark in modern American opera, Adams’s eclectic score mixes electronics with passages inspired by Wagner and Verdi as well as the big bands favoured by Nixon as a youth in the 1930s.

Accompanied by his wife Pat and national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s trip in February 1972 was the first step in normalising relations between the two powers after 25 years of Cold War isolation.

Images of the president shaking hands with Chairman Mao and the first lady meeting Chinese workers and students were broadcast daily into millions of American households, rocketing the president’s approval ratings. Four months later, burglars broke into the HQ of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Building in Washington DC. Director John Fulljames says current events give fresh relevance to the China visit, which Nixon described as “the week that changed history”.

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“When it was written in 1987 for an American audience, those events were very much present in people’s minds,” says Fulljames.

“Almost 50 years later, many of the themes of 1972 are found in today’s politics,” he continues. “We now see the 1970s as a time when politics was becoming staged for the television age. Today that’s true in an even more extreme way, with politics played out through the tweet and the live video clip. There’s a sense in which 1972 was the birth of that global, mediated politics.”

In the Scottish Opera production, Fulljames directs a cast headed by Eric Greene as Nixon, Julia Sporsen as Pat, Mark Le Brocq as Mao and Hye-Youn Lee as Madame Mao.

Stage designs by Dick Bird feature archive footage from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and the Richard Nixon Foundation. “That content enables us to reconstruct what really happened,” Fulljames says. “But although there’s a sense in which we can see this as a history play, a story about a historic event which has passed into myth, it’s also very much a piece about the idea of history; what history is and who gets to tell it. That’s very different to a documentary opera, which is perhaps what it first was in the 1980s.”

In 1995, a year after his death, Nixon was portrayed as a complex human being by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s biopic. Until then, the common perception of the man who resigned rather than be forced from office was as Tricky Dicky; a rogue whose complicity in the Watergate scandal only increased in the public’s mind with his infamous “I am not a crook” denial.

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But when Adams originally got together with Goodman and theatre director Peter Sellars in the early 1980s, they agreed their opera would not be a send-up of either Nixon or Mao, a man responsible for considerably more serious crimes enacted upon his own countrymen.

“One of the reasons Adams was attracted to the story was Nixon being lampooned,” Fulljames says. “Then, he wasn’t taken seriously. One of the wonderful things about an opera stage is that anybody you put there, anyone you give voice to, who you enable to sing, becomes humanised.

“That’s interesting with regards to the age of politics we’re in where it’s so easy to dehumanise those we don’t agree with politically. It’s so easy to stop seeing them as human beings and to see them as caricatures.

“Although these people were monsters in many ways, this piece challenges us to see how we can empathise with their personal stories while acknowledging the facts of what they actually did in the world.”

The opera’s second half shows the Nixons attending a telling of the story of the Long March, the Chinese civil war and Mao’s rise to power – albeit from the perspective of Madame Mao, who was later imprisoned for her part in the Cultural Revolution.

In contrast to her feared counterpart and awkward husband, Pat Nixon seemed a natural at striking up rapport with ordinary Chinese people on a tour of schools, factories and hospitals in Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

“What the opera shows brilliantly is how Pat Nixon was able to build an honest and authentic connection with the Chinese people,” says Fulljames. “Now we read that within the context of first ladies like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama; from our perspective, we see her as a potential politician. That shifting perspective is what keeps this opera fascinating.”

February 18, 20, 22, Theatre Royal Glasgow, 7.15pm; February 27 and 29, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 7.15pm,