by Sam Juliano
Together with Phillip Glass, John Adams is a leading composer in what is referred to simply as minimalist opera, a style that developed from the modernism of the early twentieth century, where atonality found it’s way into the musical construction.
Historical and political figures that have fired up opera composers’ imaginations dates all the way back to Handel with Giulio Cesare, and included the likes of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Verdi’s Don Carlo, the latter in which King Phillip II of Spain is transformed a character of Shakespearean dimension. Yet, an influential precedent was established when Nixon in China premiered at Houston’s Grand Opera almost a quarter-century ago when the opera did much more than just focus on an almost larger than life figure, but basically to present the history of our time as it was being self-consciously made. In the beginning many were either befuddled or even outraged at the “preposterous” notion of creating an opera about Nixon’s historic China trip, especially after the notorious events that brought sudden closure to Nixon’s term in office, and of the general idea of politics providing the subject matter of an art form that by it’s very nature seemed to preclude such corrupting inclusion. Yet, this pioneering work in retrospect, provided a remarkable aggregate of material and rich characters, and the very nature of the form, with its blend of artistic disciplines, proved uniquely well-suited to the structure underlying Nixon in China, as it modulates back and forth between grandly thrilling spectacle and introspective doubt. Hence, it is easy enough to conclude that Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman helped usher in a rebirth of American opera over the past decades by suuccessfully balancing a contemporary sensibility with the musical and dramatic traditions of the genre.
The incubation period of the opera was rife with serious second-thought, by no less than Adams himself, who initially resisted the proposal made by Peter Sellars, a progressively radical director whose idea the composer found too risky. Even Sellars could hardly have foreseen that the eventual collaboration on the celebrated state visit would be the catalyst in launching one of modern opera’s most significant careers, one that includes five further associations between the two. Adams’s initial skepticism was in full support of the aforementioned critical perception, which found it nearly impossible to perceive of anything beyond a politically correct cartoon with a scenario featuring Nixon as an operatic protagonist. Yet, Adams came to understand this pivotal time in American history imparted a mythical resonance for audiences who lived through it’s defining context. The risks taken during the writing of the opera between 1985 and 87 wound up serving as artistic advantages. The innovative spirit and oft-inspired music that ended up defining the opera resulted in a structure notable for counterpoint of mood and ambiguous emotional dynamic. Indeed there are several ‘big’ moments in the work that stand among the most memorable in the modest history of American opera. Pat Nixon’s haunting aria “Isn’t It Prophetic?” for example could rightly stand with “Ain’t it A Pretty Night?” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in lyrical felicity and a grand show-stopping elegance. Throughout the opera the full gamut of human emotions allows for the seguing of humor into pathos, satire into realism, and propaganda into self-realization.
The main action of Nixon in China revolves around the five-day visit of Nixon, his wife Pat and the presidential entourage to a country that was seen as an impregnable Communist state, where free leaders would be expected to avoid. Goodman, to great effect ignores most of the ceremonial frivolities inherent in such a landmark meeting, and instead injects the opera with philosophical paradox and elegiac confessions, while suffusing the style with poetic couplets and those arresting moments of epiphany that would no doubt be present in such a monumental historic event. Adams makes excellent use of various devices in this -and some of his subsequent operas- like the chorus at the opening, the ballet entertainment that concludes the second act, and a Hamlet-like “mousetrap” that displays the division between spectators and performers in the form of a Communist agit-prop piece titles “The Red Detachment of Women.” Adams’ own transcription of minimalism is pulsating rhythm and powerful harmonic momentum, which serves to reinforce the opera’s dramatic rhythms. Musically there are fanciful textures and a deceptively melodious underpinning that manifests itself in some of the traditional moments like Nixon’s heroic entrance aria or the subsequent competing toasts.
The original Peter Sellars production, which the Met acquired, has made the rounds. The Brooklyn Academy of Music mounted it shortly after the Houston premiere. It also traveled to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and it was broadcast by PBS (with Walter Cronkite as host). The Met’s production is based on Sellars’ revised staging of his original version created for English National Opera and which proved a hit with London audiences. Sellars’s production, which opened in 2006 at the English National Opera, emphasized the symbolic aspects of the characters from the start, when Nixon’s airplane descended from above, a huge two-dimensional facade. When Nixon (sung by James Maddalena, who originated the role and has sung it many times since) appeared at the top of the gangway, the audience broke into applause almost reflexively, as if responding to the idea of a presidential entrance, and Maddalena gave a politician’s wave that broke through the fourth wall. The idea of mammoth facades was continued in the third act with a large portrait of Mao – and was undermined by repeated scenes of Pat Nixon and her husband in their hotel room, in bed.
Sellers and Adams have made their first appearances respectively at the met for this opera. The former contributes a thoroughly innovative and vital score that is identifiably his own as his brand of minimalism (patterned on Steve Reich and Glass) which utilyzes exciting pulsation and powerful harmonic momentum to reinforce the opera’s dramatic rhythms. Noted musicologist Michael Steinberg observed that Nixon in China “recipitulates Adams’ development as a composer in that each of its scenes brings an expansion of resources and possibilities – becoming “more richly inventive in melody, freer in rhythm, more subtle in harmony, more fanciful in texture. Adams’ spirited conducting brought out what was arguably the most reverent transciption of the score since it’s opening night, no doubt inspired by this historic run in the nation’s most celebrated opera house. Seller’s work, negotiated with the dazzling complicity of lighting director James F. Ingalls, makes the most out of the sparce set design, though the gigantic image of Mao, and the air force One landing remain larger than life. But Adams’ opera, by it’s very concept is one that makes Nixon, Pat and his Chinese hosts symbols, so the ornate and exaggerated artificiality of the design appears valid.
The dissonant score, which nonethess brings in some soaring lyricism in a few key arias, is exceptionally sung by Maddalena and Janie Kelly as the Presidential couple. The supporting players -Robert Brubaker is Mao – are all accomplished, and they help to transform Nixon in China into the most unlikely of operatic successes, one whose historical importance is conveyed with extraordinary scope and topical urgency.
Note: I saw Nixon in China all by my lonesome on Wednesday, February 2nd at the Metropolitan Opera House at 8 P.M. The production was offered the following Saturday n simulcast on nationwide movie screens.