(Swans - February 28, 2011) Longview, Texas, has about 75,000 citizens and lies equidistant between Dallas and Shreveport, Louisiana. Among its several cultural attractions, one of which is the Longview Symphony Orchestra of which I have been the concertmaster since 1999, is its Hollywood movie theater, just north of the loop. For several seasons now the Hollywood, along with hundreds of other theaters around the country, has been the target of choice for the nationwide High Definition (HD) transmissions of the Metropolitan Opera. This season the Met is including 12 productions in its HD schedule. In this cornucopia of operatic HD offerings the Met has now been joined by La Scala in Milan and the San Francisco opera companies in likewise displaying their wares worldwide via live broadcasts.
And what a splendor this all is! Not only is a live opera itself presented full of close-up shots like the views through an in-house opera glass or at a movie, but also intermission features just as in the Met Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, still going on after 70 years. But, though the venerable "Opera News" and "Opera Quiz" are absent from the screen, these and the other radio features have been replaced by live interviews from backstage; interviews led by none other than reigning opera divas and divos of the present day interviewing their singing colleagues who are in backstage moments between vocal stints onstage. It's like locker room interviews with athletes at sports events.
We have enjoyed seeing stars such as Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, and others with microphone in hand interviewing singers, conductors, composers, choreographers, set designers, even stable masters and their horses, (as in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West) for the edification of long-distance viewers everywhere. Besides all this there is the sight of behind-the-curtain scenery being shifted between acts by hefty stagehands with often audible Brooklyn accents.
As interviewing divo for Nixon in China we had baritone Thomas Hampson himself conversing with various members of the cast as well as with composer/conductor John Adams, production designer Peter Sellars (not to be confused with the British actor Peter Sellers), and choreographer Mark Morris. These are definitely events that the normal in-house opera goer at the Met itself will never see and which make us screen viewers feel especially privileged. Interestingly enough, one can buy a ticket at the Met itself, as I often have, more cheaply than the ticket price at the movie theater: $15 in the Met's Family Circle, $20 at the movies.
The germ for the whole idea of Nixon in China arose in the brain of Sellars himself around 1985. There onscreen was Sellars describing it all backstage, with his punk rock hair standing straight up behind a balding forehead, looking very much like his British contemporary, violinist/violist Nigel Kennedy. Adams himself took his turn to be interviewed, slim, smiling, and vigorous; amused and pleased with all his recent success and his debut as a conductor at the Met; in his 60s with hair by now completely white and with glasses giving him a thoughtful look. Adams told us he had never composed an opera before and had to be convinced by Sellars to take on this historical topic.
Sellars's main reputation up to now, when he's not been creating new operas by John Adams, has been as an operatic destroyer, substituting incongruous and anachronistic modern sets and costumes into operas coming from the 18th and 19th centuries. (My dear friend the late critic Henry Pleasants used to make short work of those absurdities with his rapier wit.) But in Nixon Sellars was dealing with a modern topic of the present day. Thus anything up to date and modern was fair play in bringing his original brain child to life.
I had the chance a season back to see Adams's third and latest opera, from 2005, Doctor Atomic, likewise a live Met HD broadcast. I have yet to see The Death of Klinghoffer, Adams's second opera, from 1991. DOK, due to its controversial subject matter, has not enjoyed quite the number of revivals as NIC, concert versions rather than stagings often showing up. Since its premiere in Houston in 1987 NIC has been produced at the Indiana University Opera Theater, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Chicago Opera Theater, the Vancouver Opera, and the English National Opera. This was the production brought to the Met, albeit with enlarged sets to fill the larger hall. Future performances are scheduled for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the San Francisco Opera in that company's 2011/12 season. Certainly a healthy number of productions for a 20th century opera, testifying to its broad appeal and its staying power.
And appealing it is in many spots. However, to get to those moments one has to wade through a swamp of prosaic banalities, as well as of incongruous incoherence and boring pretentiousness. When I saw DA I thought I had just experienced the opera with the most pretentious libretto ever created. NIC seems a close second. In DA the libretto, crafted from pre-existing texts rather than written freshly, dipped into American Indian lore and legend as well as the most pretentious bunch of 17th- to 20th-century poetry Adams could find. If this weren't enough, much of the dialogue, prosaic as it was, came from actual secret government papers. The result was stretches of boredom that seemed to extend the length of the opera. To my mind the best part of DA took place when all the singers finally shut up just before the end and stood still waiting for the atomic bomb to go off, which it finally did with brilliantly lit effect in total silence. To be fair, however, we were told that Robert Oppenheimer's readings and interests were just those very legends and poetry sung by the characters. Thus his character could be said to have been carefully built up despite the unmemorable music chosen by Adams to create it with.
Similarly, with NIC we were also faced with prosaic, mundane people such as the Nixons, sung by baritone James Maddelena and soprano Janis Kelly, constantly telling their prosaic, mundane stories in strenuous unmemorable and incongruous operatic quasi-recitative. While probably ironically apropos by projecting in this musical style the very unheroic Nixons to the audience, it didn't create any excitement for the listener either.
When it wasn't the prosaic it was the incoherent, as in Nixon's interview with Mao Tse-tung, as sung by tenor Robert Brubaker, in the second scene of the first act. The practically immobile Mao, led about and echoed by a small chorus of physical and political supporters, refused to talk issues but insisted on a high-flown and irrelevant philosophical discussion that left everyone on stage as well as in the audience completely confused and uninterested. However, this too seems to have been recreating a historically accurate scene.
A character who absolutely refused to fit our remembered conception of her was Janis Kelly's Pat Nixon. Mrs. Nixon always struck me as a normal American housewife-type without much depth to her. But in NIC she is constantly singing deep interior monologues, which might have seemed more psychologically impressive if only some other person's name had been attached to them, one whose character could be supplied to us by our imagination. Pat's deepest moments occur in the second act when she wanders about the countryside, reminding herself of one banal scene after another from American daily life. It was as if we had been transported to a gallery filled with nothing but Edward Hopper paintings and going from one to the other, watching the artist successively transfiguring moments of quiet loneliness. Librettist Alice Goodman was at her best here. The only time Pat Nixon seemed to be in character was in the final quintet of the third act, when she kept telling Richard, who, like all the characters on stage at that moment, was reminiscing about his past, that she'd heard all his stories before.
Another character likewise given to interior monologues and incoherent public addresses was Chou En-lai as sung by baritone Russell Braun. Chou's musicalized speech to the assembled guests at the opening ceremonial dinner that closed the first act was likewise hard to love as it rambled on and on in confused concepts and unmemorable melodies. But on the other hand, we owe to Chou one of the finest moments in the opera, his final monologue in which he questions to himself the necessity of the slaughter that accompanied the revolution. His words are accompanied by the most beautiful violin and other string solos that rise into the air over and over again, softening the mood and leaving the audience in a state of quiet contemplation of moving beauty. This moment is great opera.
This brings us to the better parts, of which there are many; parts that suggest to us that it would be a good thing to see this opera again, like any other perennial favorite from the past. (This reminds me of a favorite joke from my New Zealand days. NZ conductor Michael Vinten described a record store that displayed a sign in its front window: "Highlights from the Great Operas." Right next to it stood a smaller sign announcing, "Boring Bits.") Well, in NIC, (as in much of Wagner) to get to the "highlights" you have to slog through the "boring bits."
NIC has many moments of fine humor. At one point Pat Nixon is presented with a green jade-like elephant. She remarks, "Why, that's the symbol of our party." She asks if it is a unique work of art. "No," replies her Chinese guide, "our factory turns them out by the thousands." During a visit to a farm Pat gets to pat a pig, life-size and ceramic. (She's supposed to scratch him behind the ear according to the libretto but settles for a simple pat in this performance.) During the ballet of the Red Guards in the second act portraying the history of the revolution, one of the most inspired and inspiring parts of the opera, a made-up singer acts and dances the part of a brutal landowner who rapes, tortures, and practically kills one of his female serfs. The landowner is portrayed by the very singer, Richard Paul Fink, who had been singing Henry Kissinger in act one. Pat Nixon remarks, "That fellow looks awfully familiar." An ironic testimony perhaps to Kissinger's relation to women? A hilarious Pirandello-Brecht-like episode ensues in which both Nixon and Pat are so taken with the brutal reality of the scene that they both rush on stage and try to help and comfort the abused victim. This breaking down of the invisible line between spectators and stage was stock-in-trade to both those playwrights and I'm sure they would have been pleased. Another great Alice Goodman moment.
Here is the place to heap praise on choreographer Mark Morris. The ballet of the revolution, like all his work, was brilliant. I first saw Morris's dancers in action when I attended the New York City Opera company's production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Platee (1745) a few season's back. This delightful opera is actually half ballet similar to a Broadway or Hollywood musical of our time. Morris' vigorous troupe danced their way non-stop into the audience's heart that evening. Here the Red Guards revived the fallen girl and supplied her with a rifle similar to the ones they were sporting, and they all danced out to hunt down the capitalists and the landlords. It was one of the high points in the opera, no question.
But to my mind the absolute pinnacle of operatic excitement of the whole performance was the immediately following aria, "I am Madame Mao Tse-tung" as sung by sensational coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim. We had already seen and heard Kim in action in a previous Met HD telecast as Olympia, the mechanical doll in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman (1881). As Olympia, and as Madame Mao, Kim's sensational vocal acrobatics took us back to the days when coloratura Lily Pons used to handle all such roles. Strenuously outlined and leapt-about simple major chords culminating in vocal shots into the stratosphere made Madame Mao's aria the highlight of the evening, likewise taking us back to the days when opera was really opera, not just an endless succession of prosaic unmelodic maunderings and meanderings. I suspect that the reason this aria has not become a soprano party piece heard on concerts everywhere, like Cunegonde's first-act aria in Leonard Bernstein's Candide (1956) is its sheer difficulty. But to Kim it gave her the chance to vocally show her stuff and to characterize most brilliantly Madame Mao in her merciless vituperation.
As to the other singers, James Maddelena, after 25 years of singing Nixon since its premiere in Houston in 1987, must have felt like the British 19th-century actor Henry Irving acting his most popular hit, The Bells, decade after decade at the Lyceum and other theaters. Or perhaps like the American De Wolfe Hopper taking Sherlock Holmes all over America for years and years in the early 20th century. Adams and Sellars gave him something to do in DA as well. I wish one could say that the years have been as kind to his voice as to his reputation but even I, not a vocal specialist, could recognize the wear and tear. But as to characterization, tip-top of course. We'll be better able to judge when eventually we ever hear some other singer in the role.
But in a sense the real star of the event was often the orchestra, which continually built up colorful and interesting climaxes even when not accompanied by any singers. During the opening chorus of the Chinese soldiers waiting for Nixon's plane to land and singing excerpts from Mao's Little Red Book (which we all remember seeing back in the 60s) Adams showed his minimalist union card by having the orchestra quietly reiterating over and over an ascending modal scale. In true minimalist fashion these reiterating scales displayed slight variations as they went along. Every so often Adams would transform his scale from one modality to another by changing the patterns of whole steps and half steps: the Phrygian became the Aeolian which turned into the Lydian, etc. Pardon the musical jargon, but I couldn't help but notice Adams the composer having a good time.
But the final act with its quintet of the main characters was superb, theatrical, and wonderful. All great operas need a quintet and Adams supplies us with a fine one. All the characters are presented in their beds, ready to go to sleep after five days of negotiations and ceremonies. First Mao and his one-time bride Chiang Ch'ing, now Madame Mao, reminisce in bed about the days when as a young actress she first won him. Then Nixon reminisces to Pat about his days in the Pacific theater in World War II. And finally, the solitary Chou En-lai ponders the social cost of their revolution accompanied, as described, by angelic violin music. The curtain quietly descends on what, despite some rather unrewarding moments, remains a welcome contemporary masterpiece.
And besides its many musical and dramatic virtues NIC has our gratitude as well for stimulating one of the greatest critical aphorisms I've ever come across. Back in the days when the opera was receiving some tryouts in San Francisco 25 years ago before its premiere in Houston, the company was having trouble landing someone to sing Henry Kissinger. There had been turnover in that role. My good friend, critic Martin Bernheimer, closed his review of NIC with the words, "I wonder who's Kissinger now?" (You all remember that almost eponymous song by Joe Howard from 1909, don't you?)
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