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Since the eighteenth century, 'historical' operas have puzzled and delighted audiences. But what counts as 'history' in opera? This essay argues that one answer lies in opera's complex relation not only to facticity but to temporality; whereas all operas move forward theatrically within a complex understanding of time, operas on historical subjects raise that temporal complexity to a higher pitch. Drawing on the history of opera since the reforms of the eighteenth century, this essay examines John Adams's 1987 Nixon in China. That work presents - and mythologizes - one of the most arresting diplomatic events of the post-World War II era, Richard Nixon's 1972 Beijing meeting with China's political leaders. Alice Goodman's libretto, at once lyric and formal, and Adams's propulsive writing together demonstrate that in opera, history is one clock among many. In doing so, Nixon in China allows us to rethink the terms on which history becomes opera's subject.