The item I picked was John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, in a recent (April 18, 2012) telecast streamed worldwide from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, who according to a Huffington Post article about the production by Amy Lee, was actually a victim of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tse-Tung (or, as he’s referred to in the modern-day Pinyin transliteration of Chinese, Mao Zedong); according to Lee, at the age of four Chen saw his own mother gunned down on the street. This made him a rather odd choice to direct an opera in which Mao and his premier, Chou En-Lai, actually come off rather well. I’d heard of Nixon in China since its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987 — in a much more elaborate production than this one, by the way; in Houston Richard Nixon and his wife Pat emerged onto the action in a quite accurate stage set reproducing the fuselage of Air Force One, whereas in Paris an iron staircase gets pushed into position and they make their entrance walking down it. The conductor was Alexander Briger — not that he had much to do aside from keep everyone together, since Adams was still at the height of his Minimalist period when he composed Nixon in China and therefore most of the music consists of simple phrases repeated and repeated and repeated in pretty much the same tempo. (We got enough shots of Briger at work in the pit to note that he wasn’t using a baton, and when he conducted the overture — if you can call it that — he wasn’t even using his full hands, just his middle fingers pointed at the orchestra.) This style led one wag to joke, “What’s the most boring, repetitive opera of all time? Nixon in China, Nixon in China, Nixon in China, Nixon in China, Nixon in China.”
That’s being somewhat unfair to the piece, which does have its lyrical moments and a few big arias for the principals — the one Nixon sings when he gets off the plane about the importance of news and his consciousness of his place in history; the one at the start of act two (Adams broke the opera into three acts but this broadcast played acts two and three without a break) in which Pat Nixon reminisces about her past; and the big one later in the second act in which Mrs. Mao Tse-Tung … well, it’s something about her position of power and her pride in what she’s done with it, though so much of the text was unintelligible she could have been singing in Chinese, or just gargling, for all I could tell. As I noted in my comments on Adams’ later opera Doctor Atomic (a more interesting work than Nixon in China, mainly because its musical style is far more varied), he’s nowhere close to Benjamin Britten in his skill at setting an English text so English-speaking listeners can understand what’s being sung. Charles said Britten’s operas were less a fair point of comparison than the two, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, which Virgil Thomson composed to texts by Gertrude Stein (indeed, the libretto for The Mother of Us All was completed just before Stein’s death and was the last creative work of her life), though even there Thomson was a stronger composer than Adams in making sure Stein’s words were understood — whether or not you could make any sense out of what they were saying, you could at least hear what they were. The comparison is more apt than Charles realized because the text of Nixon in China was also written by a woman — Alice Goodman — and though it’s not quite as elliptical as Stein’s it does delve into a lot of philosophical matters that were almost certainly not on the minds (or the lips) of either Nixon or Mao when they famously met on their state visit in Peking (now called Beijing) in 1972.
Nixon in China is a fascinating idea for an opera, and I suspect if I could see the original production by Peter Sellars (which, belying his reputation, appears, judging from the stills I’ve seen, to have been far more “realistic” than this one) I might like it better. One thing director Chen did that was interesting was cast genuinely Asian singers as the Chinese characters — tenor Alfred Kim as Mao, coloratura soprano Sumi Jo as Madame Mao and baritone Kyung-Chin Kim as Chou En-Lai — and in general they had to wear far less makeup than the singers playing the Americans: baritone Franco Pomponi as Nixon, soprano June Anderson (a protégée of Joan Sutherland and her husband, Richard Bonynge, who took over many of Sutherland’s big roles at the Sydney Opera and the Met) as Pat Nixon, and bass Peter Sidhom as Henry Kissinger — who comes off as the real villain of the piece: he’s rude, obnoxious and (as Amy Lee politely described him) “salacious,” and one who hadn’t lived through the Nixon years would never have the idea from this opera that back when they were working together Kissinger was actually considered the voice of reason in the Nixon administration. Indeed, Pomponi and Sidhom both look like their makeup people stuck the stuff on their faces with a trowel in order to make them resemble their real-life prototypes, and Pomponi’s movements when he comes off the plane are such jerky versions of the actual Nixon’s famous gestures he looks as if the “Imagineers” at Walt Disney World decided to follow up the animatronic Abe Lincoln by doing an animatronic robot of Nixon. This is a real pity because he sings really well, and the makeup and the jerky gestures just distract from what he’s saying (or singing); in the film Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella looked far less like the real Nixon but was much more convincing in the role.
I remember reading an interview with John Adams in which he said that he had deliberately made the music for Richard and Pat Nixon when they’re alone together sound like Glenn Miller because he was at the top of the music world when they were dating, though the intimate scene between them (one of the best parts of the score, dramatically if not musically) just sounds like Adams stuck a few more saxophone parts onto his usual style and thought that by doing so he’d make it sound like a big band. Madame Mao’s big aria has become the most popular set piece from the work — apparently a lot of modern-day sopranos use it as an audition piece — though to my mind Pat Nixon’s aria seemed a lot more moving, not just because you can understand a lot more of the text (I hadn’t realized how much the English subtitles the Met ran during Doctor Atomic were a help — this broadcast, of course, featured French subtitles since it was a French production) but because Pat Nixon’s inner emotional life is such a blank in terms of anything on the public record that Alice Goodman was free to depict it pretty much however she wanted without fear of contradiction. (I’ve noticed that throughout American history the First Ladies seem to have divided into ones who actually took an active role in their husbands’ administrations — Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama — and the ones who were just stay-at-home wives: Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, Laura Bush; and the distinction doesn’t seem to have anything to do with their or their husbands’ politics: the idea you might have that because Democrats are generally more sensitive to women’s concerns Democratic First Ladies would be more “activist” than Republican ones doesn’t hold up.)
Nixon in China is an interesting opera, one which attempts to make more political, social and philosophical statements than it actually does, and some of the ironies behind it are based on what happened to the characters after the events of April 1972: Nixon was driven from office in the Watergate scandal (though he returned to China after his resignation and met Mao again, and reportedly Mao asked him, “Why did you let yourself get hounded out of office by Congress? Why didn’t you just dissolve Congress and declare martial law?” — and Nixon supposedly responded, “Gee, I never thought of that”); Mao died in 1976; his widow fell from grace as part of the “Gang of Four” that tried to continue the highly socialist agenda of the Cultural Revolution; and with Mao dead China eventually took the capitalist road and the repressive apparatus Mao and his government had created to keep the Communist Party in power now began to be used to ensure the profits of Western companies who outsourced their manufacturing to China by keeping workers from organizing unions and demanding higher wages. By the 1980’s, when Adams, Goodman and Sellars (who was a collaborator in terms of suggesting ideas for the libretto and working out his production while Adams and Goodman were still writing) were working out Nixon in China, some of this was already history — certainly Mao’s warnings against letting China become capitalist again just because it was now once again in a relationship with the world’s leading capitalist power ring oddly true today now that China has swung from one of the most egalitarian to one of the most inegalitarian societies on earth — and the irony that Mao is running a dictatorship but claims to be representing “the people” while Nixon is running a nominal democracy (while he was rigging the election process to draw the weakest opponent possible and ensure his own election through a variety of political frauds and repressions of which the Watergate burglary was just the tip of the iceberg) but governing largely like a dictator is a powerful, though unstressed, subtext of the piece. So are the philosophical pretensions of both Nixon and Mao.
It’s harder to be objective about the singing per se in a production of Nixon in China than it is in a standard-repertory opera, though I was amused that the two women were cast with singers with far bigger international reputations than any of the males in the cast, and June Anderson’s portrayal of Pat Nixon was the high point for me not only because Anderson (despite some shakiness in her voice that wasn’t there a quarter-century ago when she first emerged into stardom) was the best singer in the cast but because her role was the most interesting and the music more flattering to her voice than any of the others’. Say what you will about the Minimalist musical style of Nixon in China, it at least is strongly rhythmic and has a sort of news-program theme urgency about it: one really does get the impression of important world-historical events being enacted before your eyes — and the long ballet sequence in Act Two (has anyone else noticed that Nixon in China is structured like a 19th-century French grand opera, with a big opening chorus, introduction arias for the principals, and a major ballet in the second act?) has proved so popular that Adams extracted an instrumental suite from it, called The Chairman Dances, which has become one of his most popular symphonic works. I’m not sure how history will view Nixon in China, or what future generations will make of it once all the people who actually lived when Nixon and Mao did are dead, but for me it’s an interesting piece even though my feelings about Nixon in China are inevitably bound up with my feelings about the real events it depicts!