Wednesday, June 06, 2012
Nixon in China Preview
Nixon in China, John Adams's first opera, is receiving its San Francisco debut this Friday 25 years after it premiered at the Houston Grand Opera. In 1987, that company was being run by current SF Opera General Director David Gockley, and of all the many operas he commissioned there, Nixon in China is probably the one that will keep him in the history books. (For a lovely conversation with Gockley and Georgia Rowe about the opera, click here.)
The opera opened to almost universally hostile reviews from critics who were dumbfounded by the "CNN Opera" aspect of the piece (the Nixons' trip to China had occurred only fifteen years earlier), the strangeness of the minimalist music with its amplified small orchestra that is extremely heavy on brass, and the poetic attitude taken towards all the historical characters except for the war criminal Henry Kissinger who is treated as a buffoon. (I once heard the director/impresario Peter Sellars remark that reading the first two volumes of Henry Kissinger's Memoirs was one of the most painful tasks of his life.) The John Adams Reader above contains a howlingly bad example review of the opera by The New Republic cultural neocon Edward Rothstein, and a tentative appreciation by Tim Mangan after seeing the opera in Washington, DC.
There were other people, though, like myself and Patrick Vaz and thousands of others, who become obsessed with the piece, and would play the Nonesuch recording conducted by Edo de Waart, starring most of the original cast, over and over again. Since that time, John Adams has become increasingly successful, celebrated and above all performed, and Nixon in China has become one of the few modern operas to emerge a worldwide success.
The Metropolitan Opera recently debuted the opera in its original Peter Sellars production with the original Nixon, sung by James Maddalena in what I read was a distressing vocal performance. I saw that production in the late 1980s at the Los Angeles Opera, and remember being decidedly disappointed. The music wasn't as well played or sung as on the recording, and the production had an amateurish feeling. Sellars is a great visionary, but as a theatrical director I've never been all that convinced.
There have been two successful productions of the opera created in the last decade in North America, one by director James Robinson at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis which has just gotten a live recording when it was performed in Colorado. The other production was created a couple of years ago in Vancouver, directed by Michael Cavanagh, and from what I've been able to see, it's intelligent and beautiful. Canadians are some of the sharpest, subtlest observers of the United States in the world, and that sensibility informs the show.
According to both Gockley and Beijing baritone Chen-Ye Yuan, who has sung Chou En-Lai in both versions, the Vancouver production was the obvious choice because it translated better to a large opera house like San Francisco. Yuan and Maria Kanyova, as Pat Nixon, have both sung their roles a half dozen times, while the rest of the cast are rookies, with the exception of the heldentenor Simon O'Neill as Mao who sang the role with Minnesota Opera seven years ago. From what I have heard in rehearsal, this San Francisco cast may be the strongest this opera has ever boasted, and the very good Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes is creating wonders with this very difficult music.
The reason I can report all this is that for the last month I have been rehearsing as a supernumerary Red Army soldier and Beijing banquet waiter, running around in a frenzy on various rehearsal stages to some of my favorite music. It's been sheer bliss, and the fact that our rehearsal pianist Jonathan Kelly is a genius musician added to the pleasure.
The oddest detail is how something that was so blazingly contemporary when it premiered has so quickly become an historical relic. We might as well be watching Don Carlo at times. From the reel-to-reel tape recorders on stage to the scary 1970 hairdos on the Western reporters, this feels long ago and far away. It's great to have it finally show up at the San Francisco Opera House (click here for tickets).