The date was April 15, 1988, and the television critic Marvin Kitman was quoting Walter Cronkite, the anchor, who was quoting André Malraux, the French adventurer, statesman and thinker. When President Richard M. Nixon electrified the world by visiting the vast, mysterious Communist bastion of Mao Zedong's China in 1972, Malraux said it would take 50 years to sort out what had happened there.
The same was true, Mr. Kitman suggested, of the opera "Nixon in China," a collaboration of the intellectual gadfly and director Peter Sellars, who came up with the idea; the first-time opera composer John Adams; and the poet and first-time librettist Alice Goodman. The opera was being broadcast that night on PBS's "Great Performances" series. (Mr. Cronkite, who had accompanied Nixon to China, was the guest host.) Undaunted, Mr. Kitman leapt in with his instant assessment.
"There are only three things wrong with 'Nixon in China,' " he said. "One, the libretto; two, the music; three, the direction. Outside of that, it's perfect."
Re-enacting one historic media circus, "Nixon in China" set off another. The premiere took place in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, where it was also filmed. In The Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein called "Nixon in China" "an operatic triumph of grave and thought-provoking beauty." In The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Mark Swed wrote that it would "bear relevance for as long as mankind cherished humanity."
The naysayers were equally emphatic. Peter G. Davis of New York magazine declared that "Adams fails to do the job." The chief music critic of The New York Times, Donal Henahan, opened his review with the question "That was it?" He characterized the production as "a Peter Sellars variety show, worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory" and "fluff."
Well, the latest version of the well-traveled original production (which appeared early on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) alights at the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday night, affording the ubiquitous Mr. Sellars a tardy house debut. Mr. Adams, who had a hit at the Met with "Doctor Atomic" in 2008, will conduct there for the first time. The production is scheduled for high-definition broadcast to movie theaters on Feb. 12.
Concurrently, beginning on Feb. 9, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto will present the opera in a stylish abstract staging by James Robinson, originally mounted by the Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2004. A handful of shorter-lived productions have been mounted around the world, though none in China.
Mr. Adams first conducted "Nixon in China" at the British premiere in 1988 and has returned to it often, though not for some time.
"Don't misquote me, or you'll make me sound self-congratulatory," he said before heading off to a rehearsal at the Met this month. "But when I look at it now, I'm amazed that I wrote it. I had never attempted anything on this scale before, never written for the solo voice. I'm astonished that the opera turned out as well as it did. And there's Alice's work as well."
Having set poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in his choral fresco "Harmonium," Mr. Adams insisted on finding a librettist whose literary voice would be both powerful and distinctive. When Mr. Sellars, who knew Ms. Goodman from their student days at Harvard, made introductions, she had just one poem to show. Yet the match was made.
"Alice had never attempted anything remotely like 'Nixon,' " Mr. Adams said. "It was just one of those miraculous things."
Nixon's audience with Mao, Pat Nixon's excursions to factories and the Ming tombs: the synopsis of "Nixon in China" tracks history closely. But the creators imparted an imaginative, even mythic dimension to their characters' meditations.
Like Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars, Ms. Goodman read up voluminously on her subject, producing a script that is sometimes slangy and often inspirational. Her word to describe her collaboration with Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars is "polyphonic."
"We disagreed violently about one thing and another," she wrote when the opera was new, "and while some of the disagreements were resolved, others were amicably maintained. There are places where the music goes against the grain of the libretto, and places where the staging goes against the grain of both."
Mr. Sellars, in an essay for the current reissue of the original recording on Nonesuch, places "Nixon" against the backdrop of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach," on one hand, and of his own production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare," staged as "The American President Visits the Middle East," on the other.
The musical affinities between Mr. Adams and Mr. Glass - the off-kilter, driving rhythms, the large arcs constructed from small cells - require no elaboration. The revolutionary lesson of "Einstein," Mr. Sellars writes, was that opera "was not only not dead, or about the dead, or for the dead; it was alive as the collaborative form of choice for our interdisciplinary, intercultural, interdependent generation."
As for "Giulio Cesare," it spurred the "Nixon" team's political and philosophical ambitions. "Handel lunched with three administrations of corrupt British politicians, royalty, rear admirals, court flacks and power players," Mr. Sellars adds. "And he wrote the soundtrack to the British empire at close range. In Handel's generation writers like Swift and Fielding would announce comical or satirical intentions and then proceed to unfold larger, much more serious, ultimately visionary projects."
"Nixon in China" was conceived in just that spirit. What at first glance may look like lampoon often devolves into the intense, dreamlike free associations characteristic of "Einstein on the Beach," as when Nixon disembarks, exchanges courtesies with Premier Chou En-lai (the opera uses the transliteration) on the tarmac and explodes into an aria of sputtering euphoria ("News has a kind of mystery").
Mr. Kitman singled out this passage for special ridicule when the opera was new. But to the baritone James Maddalena, the original Nixon, the writing felt perfectly natural. With more than 100 performances in more than a dozen cities under his belt, Mr. Maddalena now recreates the role at the Met, still a few years shy of Nixon's age (59) at the time of the historic visit.
"I just learned the music and sang it," Mr. Maddalena said between rehearsals. "Have you ever flown to Asia? It's a long trip. To me the music just fit the mood of being tired and wired from 50 cups of coffee on Air Force One."
In context, a strain of paranoia in the aria is more difficult to account for. Mr. Adams said he suspected a grim line about rats beginning to gnaw the sheets - what sheets? - of being an "Alice Goodman goodie." By e-mail from Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. Goodman (who was raised as a Reform Jew but now serves as the college's ordained Anglican chaplain) confirmed that it was, adding that the imagery is "nautical not bedroom."
"R.M.N.," she wrote, "is imagining himself as the captain of a ship," and why not, given his record of naval service? Often lines that seem wildly fanciful allude to very specific historical facts and utterances. And new knowledge brings new layers. For the benefit of the current cast, Mr. Sellars has assembled a lending library of some 50 books on Chinese affairs in the rehearsal room, many published since the opera was completed.
A more elaborate interpenetration of the historical and the personal comes in Act II. Horrified by the sadistic agitprop ballet "The Red Detachment of Women," choreographed in the Sellars production by Mark Morris, Pat Nixon leaps onstage to intervene, shortly to be followed by Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, who cuts loose with an aria of cold, revolutionary fury.
The coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim, who sings Jiang (transliterated Chiang Ch'ing), has done her homework too. "Chiang Ch'ing was an actress before she met Mao," she said recently. "During the Cultural Revolution, with Mao, she was the most powerful figure in China, responsible for millions of people's deaths. But she was also a woman who wanted to be loved by her husband and hated being rejected. At her trial she said: 'I was Chairman Mao's dog. Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.' "
If the visionary conclusion of Jiang's aria suggests a counterintuitive identification with the character on the part of the librettist, Ms. Goodman does not deny it.
"A writer tends to find her characters in her self," Ms. Goodman wrote in her e-mail, "so I can tell you (I think I've told this to other people, so it's not news) that Nixon, Pat, Mme. Mao, Kissinger and the chorus were all 'me.' And the inner lives of Mao and Chou En-Lai, who I couldn't find in myself at all, were drawn from a couple of close acquaintances."
Ms. Goodman stacks the deck against Kissinger, who comes off as an unprincipled scoundrel. Pat Nixon, however, displays a deep and touching dignity; Zhou Enlai, who has the last word, emerges as a philosopher king.
As a seasoned opera composer now, Mr. Adams has learned the painful lesson that audiences will take from a work of art what they like. "I've read some suggestions that 'Nixon in China' paints the Communists, especially Mao, with a sense of awe and belittles America," he said. "From my point of view, that's utterly wrong."
As "Nixon in China" approaches repertory status, surely it is only a matter of time before some director or other makes precisely that case, or one more deliberately outrageous.
"Oh, no," Mr. Adams said. "You mean that someday there will be a Eurotrash production?"
On the Marxist principle that history repeats itself as farce, that seems a foregone conclusion. Call it the price of immortality.