Cher Public

Nixon in preview

nixon_in_chinaThere were a disproportionate number of young people at the Met today—even younger than me, which is really young. That made me happy and smile while filing in line to enter the auditorium. Hopefully this is the next generation of undying fans and queens about to plunge into a “new” world of opera spearheaded by John AdamsNixon in China from the 80s: a MET premiere no less!

But let’s get to the dish of this dress. 

Adams’ entrance was greeted by a loud ovation, true to the spirit of the work, welcoming an member of American mythos into the podium of America’s Opera house.

Immediately there was a faux pas: the curtain was raised and it immediately began to lurch. Up and down, up and down. It then remained, I would say, about 3/5 of the way to the top of the proscenium, exposing the grim-looking chorus. I didn’t know, at least until later, whether this position of the curtain was a malfunction or an actual part of the production. The chorus was good in its command of the language–I had little need to look at the Titles in English, which was an accomplishment, though there were still parts where I had to sneak a peek.

The singing was uniformly good coming from all of the principals. James Maddalena had a vibrant and warm baritone that did not feel too pointy or barky for me; it felt strong and secure, with a jitteriness that I have always associated with Nixon’s political and personal character from contemporary American lore. Richard Paul Fink‘s Kissinger was also a pleasure to watch and listen to, giving a lot of himself into his acting and singing. God knows he was never inaudible, plus he wasn’t shy about girating on a Chinese dancer during the Act 2 dance sequence where he played “Henry Kissinger playing the part of sexually-abusive Chinese landowner.”

Janis Kelly, I thought, was adorable and perhaps one of the best parts of this production, as Pat Nixon. From where I was sitting, not far from the stage, she looked like Cloris Leachman mixed in with Debbie Reynolds, with that coiffed, blond wig and stature. She was able to mix the “housewife” persona of the mid-20th century and the persona of America’s First Lady: neurotic, romantic, wistful, dignified, and pill-popping. Her “This is prophetic” was moving and well-sung.

Robert Brubaker‘s Mao was a surprise. A heldentenor singing the role of this crippled man—more on this “cripple”-ness later—in such a high tessitura was a little ringing in the ear, but he carried it off.  Loud, loud, loud!

Now, Kathleen Kim was also in the same league as Kelly as one of the stars of the show. Her coloratura and pointed delivery for “I am the wife of Mao Ze Dong” was one of two highlights of the show for me–the first one being Pat Nixon’s aria—culminating in a final moving tableau of the Chinese revolting. Her voice and acting all got the point across: The ways in which women during the Communist revolution in China had very few ways of climbing the political echelon, and she found out how. Nice high D’s coming from Kim.

The worrisome part of the production seemed to be the direction, which is difficult to judge on a dress rehearsal, but still. There were moments when I thought that the movements were just pointless, like at the beginning when the chorus is singing about their discipline with everyone facing the audience. Then some members of the chorus move off, and just walk to the back, then walk back to the front, at the same position, with little to no point, I thought.

The big red curtain became a huge part of the production, becoming a mode of focusing the attention of the audience to certain parts of the stage. For now, due to the mishaps that happened at the beginning with the curtain, I can’t help but associate the curtain with “tacky” but I am so willing to be corrected on that by members of the cher public.

The production relied on backdrops ala Ravenswood Castle from the Zimmerman Lucia which I thought could have worked had they fixed the blocking. There was one point where the Summer Palace backdrop placed the palace on top of the tree branches.

The scene with the dance for the Red Detachment of Women was a joy, though confusing for me. The members of the chorus, Pat, Henry, Dick, and Madame Mao were seated facing the audience. The background behind them changed regularly with more drop-downs that were evident as fabric. It took me a while to realize that the backdrop was meant to be viewed as the backdrop for the show within the show.

Mao’s disability also vanished come Act 3, though not after coming down from an opening in his iconic portrait’s mouth via the same tarmac staircase that was used for the Air Force One landing in Act 1—which received laughs by the way, because of the lightness of the plane compared to the heaviness of the stairs. After that walk down the stairs, Mao was suddenly cured of his disability and started walking normally.

  • m. croche

    OT: Aribert Reimann, recently discussed on this site, just won the 200K Euro Siemens music prize.

  • Pelleas

    Ah, “classical” music--the last art form able to describe one of its audiences as containing “a disproportionate number of young people.”

  • Signor Bruschino

    The comments about the flat air force one had me imagining if this production was done during the Volpe regime with Gian Carlo del Monaco at the helm (also triggered by sitting through Boccanegra last week)… Just imagine the airplane- and had dramatically flat everything else would be!

  • Video of Nixon’s “News” aria from the dress rehearsal is included in an essay at Daily Beast by occasional parterre contributor Seth Colter Walls.

    • Further video previews of Nixon have just been posted on the Met’s site:

    • Batty Masetto

      This is such powerful, ferocious music. Hard to understand why people would think it’s intellectual, or that it’s somehow being kind to Nixon (or Jiang Qing for that matter).

      • sfmike

        Amen, Batty Masetto. I’m starting to wonder about the sophistication level of the commenters on this site (though not our esteemed hostess) if they don’t “get” this music, which is about as fun and accessible as modern classical music can be.

        Nixon was still alive and not long out of his disgraced exit from the White House when the opera was written. Plenty of people who had hated the crook for decades also wondered why anybody would want to have him as the subject for an evening-length opera, but the choice (by Peter Sellars) was inspired, as is Alice Goodman’s poetic libretto which is satiric, poetic and serious by turns.

        The music is some of Adam’s best and as Batty mentions, it has a powerful, ferocious energy along with wit galore (Mao even has his own Dreamettes to repeat his aphorisms).

        Having said all this, I think the original Peter Sellars production which I saw in Los Angeles in the 1980s, is mediocre at best. There have been plenty of other productions all over the world, and I’d be curious to see how others would stage this mixture of CNN docudrama and extreme stylization. It’s probably fitting that the Met is getting the Sellars original, though, since its conservative audiences and management seem to still be playing catch up.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      Great article and mini interview by Walls. It just may be really tough for me to separate my personal politics and knowledge of the Nixon Administration from the art. Yes, like all human beings Richard Nixon is emotionally and intellectually complex. And I suppose we can all learn something about ourselves from his portrayal in this piece. But, why Nixon? Why not controversial figures like Malcolm X or, for that matter, Osama Bin Laden (yes I know Addams couldn’t have written about Osama in the 1980s). If what these contemporary figures actually did is less important for opera audiences than what we can learn by revealing their complex and human sides then any notoriously evil human should do right? I think the public would reject a Bin Laden opera, which of course raises questions about why a Nixon opera isn’t categorically offensive to people.

      Moreover, why must we learn about our common humanity from Nixon, but not from the very human cost of the agreements struck between the U.S. and Chinese nations during this fateful trip. While I’m wishing, it’d be really fascinating to see a one act version of the agreements struck between the U.S. and China, with minimal music, something very stark and clinical sounding. And then have Act II set in Taiwan and Act III set in a rust belt American city circa 1989. Now *thats* a CNN opera that could still be as effective and emotionally evocative as the best parts of Nixon in China. Then again its unlikely I’ll be composing any operas anytime soon.

      That said, I congratulate Addams and the cast who have championed this work for decades for their Met debut. Its a well deserved triumph of new musical ideas over conservatism for the Met to put this work on. I shall have to keep waiting for an opera that truly celebrates progressive politics though and settle for those productions that ask big questions about capitalism and empire.

      • perfidia

        The PC police would have probably put a fatwa on Addams’ head if he had dared to write an opera about Malcolm X. It is interesting to especulate though.

      • m. croche

        If you want an opera that more truly “celebrates progressive politics”, go watch John Adams’ I Was Looking At The Ceiling When I Saw The Sky.

        You’ll have only yourself to blame.

      • m. croche

        Also useful to note that Adams received this kind of OperaN-style blame from the other side of the aisle for Death of Klinghoffer. Goodman/Sellars/Adams used a similar style to take on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Though to my mind the opera does not endorse the Palestinian hijackers, it does not make them into cardboard villains either. Goodman/Sellars/Adams lets each character present themselves and then allows the audience to make a judgement. This approach led to the opera being denounced rather vitriocally in the New York Times by Richard Taruskin and has given the work a very troubled performance history. (A planned performance of the Klinghoffer Choruses in Boston was cancelled shortly after 9/11).

        So I think Goodman/Sellars/Adams paid a genuine price for taking up the sort of challenge you advocate. It’d be nice to see you give them some credit for it.

        • OpinionatedNeophyte

          Like anything I’m willing to give the work a chance, I’ll have to track down a recording of it.

        • Signor Bruschino

          I remember reading that Tarusking article a decade ago, and thanks for bringing it up- read it again and quite surprised by the sentiment- here is a link fyi


        • Henry Holland

          I can’t be bothered to look it up but I think the original production of Klinghoffer was co-produced by (among many others) the Los Angeles Opera. We never had the production here, it was scuppered by Jewish board members/donors.

          Nixon in China was done in the 90-91 season, basically the same Sellars production though he toyed with the third a bit. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s been all downhill for John Adams since. Mileage varies widely, of course.

      • Batty Masetto

        ON, it almost seems as though you think those of us who actually lived under the Nixon administration would be unaware of its horrors. I well remember the sense of nausea when he was elected and the “ding, dong the witch is dead” feeling when he finally fell. This was a man who was willing to wreak any amount of devastation in pursuit of what he saw as his image in “history! history! history!” – something I think Adams nails cold. And even if Maddalena is vocally a lot less secure than he was 25 years ago, he looks even more appropriately scary.

        Yet the paradox is that this skunk (Nixon, not Maddalena!) also defused dangerous international tensions in a way that went directly contrary to his own party’s long-established line. Even though that was again more in the pursuit of “history! history!” than out of any sense of human compassion. Remember, the “Red Chinese” had been one of the top favorites in the Republicans’ Demon of the Month Club for more than 20 years. In US political terms, opening dialog with them was comparable in many ways to opening dialog with Bin Laden today. So it looks to me as though the opera has just the kind of topicality you seem to be wishing for. The scoring of that moment when that airplane touches down is an astonishing mixture of excitement, promise and horror.

        The work is packed with that kind of complexity. The Mao-Nixon meeting: a devious crook and a mass murderer representing two utterly unscrupulous world powers. And yet they did make things a little safer. They defused the fantasy of the Chinese invading and murdering us all in our beds, which the Republicans had promoted just as eagerly as they promote Islamophobia today. I don’t know what the benefits felt like from the Chinese side, I wasn’t there. But I was here, and it did make the world different here, and in Europe as well from what I knew of people’s responses there. The agreements they reached were dire in a whole new way, but the mere fact that they met changed all kinds of things. I would suggest that a world-changing event (at least from the Western viewpoint) is not an unsuitable subject for a (Western) opera.

        • OpinionatedNeophyte

          Batty, forgive my presumption, sometimes it does become easy to discount that people know these things (especially when you spend as much time in flyover territory as I do). You make a really persuasive case for the work and I have to conceede that it serves as an historical argument about the end of the fear mongering side of the Cold War and the beginning of a new global order defined by (near) universal acceptance that industrial and postindustrial capitalism would manage the world. Perhaps no other medium but opera could convey those ideas in this way. And yes, the grand nature of what happened makes it a suitable subject.

          But what remains troubling is how the disproportionately young audience consumes and understands Addams’ depiction of Nixon and the trip as a whole. I feel your nuanced reading relies upon being alive (and attentive) from the 1950s-1980s or on being a student of history. If I’m a bit cynical about how the majority of people of your generation that engage in something like your nuanced reading I’m downright skeptical that people my age-29 and younger are familiar enough with the larger context and may come away with a more positive idea about Nixon than I am comfortable with. I’m curious how the work is introduced in the liner notes. But all this means that, yes I will probably have to find my way to a Nixon in China performance at some point (with titles) so I can get all of the libretto in context.

          • ianw2

            What? How can you assume how the generic young people consume and understand Adams’ take of the Nixon trip?

            Perhaps I’m misinterpreting you, but are you proposing that its essential for an audience to have a nuanced view of history to truly understand the horrors not being portrayed on stage? I doubt mainly of us were alive to develop a nuanced view of the Inquisition, for example. I mean, class struggles are played for laughs in a whole spectrum of comic operas- not much nuance for the very real injustice of it there either. To say nothing of racial and ethnic stereotyping.

            Would it be more acceptable for, say, some composer in 2120 to write a Nixon opera with as much nuance as Verdi’s take on Ancient Egypt?

            What about the eventual (and there will be one) opera set in the WTC on 9/11?

          • m. croche

            There will be one, ianw2. SF Opera is mounting Theofanidis’ “Heart of a Soldier” next season. I try not to think about it. The cringing deepens those wrinkles.

          • ianw2

            Yes, and I still hate that title. But I was thinking more thundering-timpani-falling-steel-girders Meyerbeer type of opera, less philosophical ‘how we’ve changed’.

      • ianw2

        For a Republican President to open talks with Communist China in the early 1970s… that’s pretty progressive.

        Batty- your comments about the (Western) opera has made me think of a fabulous festival type idea… Nixon reimagined by a Chinese opera composer played in rep with Adams’ original. Though sadly I don’t think there are many Chinese opera composers around these days (Chinese as in the Peking style, not ethnicity).

        • Batty Masetto

          I love that idea, ianw! It would be something like looking at those Japanese paintings of Commodore Perry & Co. M.croche, you know something about Chinese opera, how about it? Any candidates?

          • m. croche

            The range of acceptable political expression in China now is pretty darn narrow. I suppose it’s conceivable you could get the government to back a new opera based on Nixon/Mao, though a TV series would be much more likely. On top of that: it’s VERY uncomfortable for them to discuss the Cultural Revolution, especially in high-profile performance venues.

            Wouldn’t it just be easier to contrast Nixon/China with one Jiang Qing’s 8 model plays, like Shajiaban or Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy? The government still LOVES to put those on, even for export.

        • m. croche

          Well, there are many styles of Chinese opera -- not just Beijing. Some (such as huangmei opera, Shanghai huju or Taiawanese gezaixi) have been more flexible in adapting to new subjects than others. As a rule of thumb, the more regional/local the style, the folksier it is and the more amenable to updating and modernization. The very old kunqu style, by contrast, sticks to the old stories.

          Here? for example is a section of Hamlet done as Beijing opera (wang zifu fuchou)

          An excerpt from the huju opera “The Second Handshake” (dierci woshou).

          Here’s some modern qinqiang from Shaanxi province:

          And some modernized Hebei clapper opera:

          The last couple examples were picked out nearly at random. Chinese opera is now rather old-fashioned, but it’s still a high-prestige and rather busy sector of cultural production.

          • ianw2

            My god! Batty was not kidding when he said you were an expert. I confess I know nothing about it, and only that what I have read is that it was a dying form. Glad to see it is still kicking on.

          • Bosah

            Thank you!

          • m. croche

            Glad you enjoyed them. For those wondering, the Beijing opera excerpt first shows a tableau with the crazy Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius (in white-face) and Laertes. Claudius connives with Laertes. Then comes Hamlet in the graveyard. Finally the scene at court, with Gerrude in her Sunday finest.

            I love this stuff. I sometimes consider starting a Chinese opera blog, but until my mother gets a computer, I’m afraid the readership would be rather small….

          • Thank you m. The interface for that first clip makes YouTube seem primitive.

            You might have one other fan. Somehow I got into a conversation with a guy at the local Verizon store about the lack of “culture” available on cable and satellite in this country; he assured me that opera was alive and well on the Chinese channels because his mother did nothing but watch Chinese opera all day.

          • Henry Holland

            Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

            Great album by Brian Eno.

      • armerjacquino

        I find myself banging on boringly about this on this site (and here I go again) but anything, and anyone, can be a fit subject for a work of art- what matters is the quality of the product. Adams and Goodman had something they wanted to say about Nixon/his visit to China. To suggest that taking him as subject matter is, or might be ‘categorically offensive’ to people strikes me as a very dangerous thing to say. Who else are we not allowed to write about? I disagree with the suggestion that an opera about Bin Laden would automatically be rejected by the public, too. One of the most important jobs of any writer, (be it of theatre, fiction, poetry, opera, anything) is to reflect and comment on the society in which the writer finds him-or-herself, isn’t it?

        I suspect I’ll have to dust this post off again when ‘Anna Nicole’ opens, for different and the same reasons.

        • OpinionatedNeophyte

          AJ, I didn’t argue that this subject “shouldn’t” be done or that there should not be operas about Nixon. I was opining about what American audiences find offensive and they do not. It seems my musings have merit considering what m.croche has said about the troubled performance history of Death of Klinghoffer.

          • armerjacquino

            Apologies if I misunderstood you, ON, especially as you raise a lot of interesting points.

            I suppose what I mean is that my answer to your question ‘Why Nixon?’ is… why not?

  • CruzSF