Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong Dance at Smashing Long Beach Opera “Nixon in China” – March 20, 2010

March 21st, 2010

How can any of us Fifty-Something Plus Types ever forget that incredible, epochal meeting in February 1972 when Nixon met Chairman Mao Zedong (modern [pinyin] Chinese for the formerly spelled Mao Tse Tung) in Beijing (used to be Peking), literally changing history from that episode foreward?

Prolific American composer, Pulitzer-Prize winning John Adams (born 1947, California-based) certainly seized on the vast gravity of this confrontation in placing it in the Three-Dimensional world of Opera, debuting at Houston Grand Opera in 1987, soon making its way to Los Angeles in 1990 with a Peter Sellars production where I saw it initially, and was entranced. Adams’ “Nixon in China” came in for a spectacular landing in Long Beach.

[Below: the finale to “Nixon in China” at Long Beach Opera; edited image, based on a Keith Ian Pelakoff photograph, courtesy of the Long Beach Opera.]

Long Beach Opera brought back this extraordinary work (March 20 and 28, 2010) to Long Beach’s larger, LA Music Center-size Terrace Theater, conducted by LBO’s Artistic & General Intendant Austrian Andreas Mitisek, stage-directed by Peter Pawlik and choreographed by UK’s Jenny Weston, both coming with substantial portfolios in opera. Of this piece, composer Adams notes, “It is part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical and even gender issues.”

Having seen it twice before, it is indeed all of those observations, but much more: Adams takes his famed minimalist genre and makes it sing, dance, soar musically and be enormously entertaining as we watch history unfold – as did those of us fortunate enough to have seen San Francisco’s super-spectacular Phillip Glass’ “Appomattox” (seen Oct 14, 2007) which your website host William and I independently reviewed – we were both literally awe-struck. (see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007 and Tom on S. F.’s “Appomattox” – An American “War and Peace”.)

I was ditto when I first saw “Nixon”! Here the pacing of the musical score was fast, very gutsy/dynamic/forceful, lyrical at points, thunderously Wagnerian at others, and supremely entertaining.

Both “Nixon in ChIna” and “Appomattox” are Docu-Operas much in the tradition of super-film-maker Ken Burns presenting his unforgettable documentaries on TV. Indeed, Prokoviev’s sensational opera “War and Peace” seen in San Francisco and Seattle was the definitive Docu-opera of the twentieth century, and to me “Appomattox” was an American “War and Peace”!!

Opera lets music tell another side – indeed another, three- dimensional perspective – to these historic events, adding understanding, depth and emotion which photos or film cannot do, just as the sensational music of Puccini makes his “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly” so deliriously sublime which an ordinary movie-theater flick could not do.

Chairman Mao still surveys his vast domain from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian-an-men) in Beijing, commanding Tiananmen Square as seen in my photograph looking due north as this Gate gains entrance into the fabled Forbidden City lying on a precise North/South axis.

Many ask what the huge Chinese characters on the walls of this photographed-by-all Gate say; that on the left says Long Live The People’s Republic of China, and the right one says Long Live The Unity of the Peoples of the World.

[Below: the portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square; resized image from a photograph by Tom.]

We also show the Gate from the Square itself, festooned with flowers. In its center is Mao’s colossal tomb. On the West side of the Gate is the Great Hall of the People within which many of the meetings occurred in this epic visit (preceded by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, setting the stage. We show the Great Hall of the People, seat of the legislative bodies of China. Kissinger is seen repeatedly in Adams’s opera as a very central mover-and-shaker.

[Below: a wider view of Tiananmen Square; resized image of photograph by Tom.]

The elite in the US delegation stayed and dined in the near-by Beijing Hotel  (I’ve been often) which we also show – an elegant, European-style hotel with all the amenities. I have been told by locals that Mao did dance there, but not necessarily when the Nixons visited, but in the opera Mao’s famous “dance” is brilliantly portrayed by Adams in perhaps the most famous music in the opera.

[Below: the Beijing Hotel; resized image from a photograph by Tom.]

Of interest – and meaningful in the opera – is that when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (China has risen again) from the balcony of Tiananmen on October 1, 1949, he was following the centuries when the Emperors of China issued great proclamations from this very spot!

While in Beijing the Nixons toured (their first request) the Forbidden City (see my review of Puccini’s “Turandot”: Superlative: 1998 Gold Medal “Turandot” in Beijing’s Forbidden City), the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, etc and attended many grande banquets – at one we show him examining the next dish with less-than-enthusiam – maybe Peking Toad? These banquets are superbly shown in the Long Beach Opera production.

[Below, in a historical photograph, Premier Chou En Lai assists President Nixon with his dinner; edited image, based on a photograph, with the courtesy and permission of the Nixon Presidential Library.]

Setting the Stage for this Super-Summit and the Opera Documenting it

Mao’s China assisted North Korea during the Korean War starting in June 1950 – the US fought to a bloody stalemate, with 54,000 dead US soldiers, Ike Eisenhower signing an armistace July 27,1953. Soviet Russia had been substantially supporting Mao’s China until 1960 when that aid ceased dramatically, and Russia emerged into a nuclear Super Power becoming highly suspicious of China under Mao, as Japan immensely prospered under the US nuclear shield, becoming the economic Super Power of Asia.

France’s long involvement in Vietnam drew to a fatal close and the US became heavily involved by 1963 as Mao’s China greatly assisted North Vietnam ultimately bringing about America’s total defeat with the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 (58,000 dead US soldiers) with Mao’s death following in September 1976, but this war was furiously raging when Nixon visited.

All of these seething, ongoing events set the stage for Nixon making the decision to attempt a reconcilliation, going to China in February 1972 – Nixon arriving in Air Force One – “Spirit of ’76” on the tarmac in Beijing – and rolling forward on stage in Long Beach to tumultuous applause – most dramatically portrayed as Adams’ “Nixon in China” opens with China’s Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (aka Chou en Lai) greeting Richard and Patricia Nixon.

[Below: in a historical photograph, Premier Chou Enlai greets President and Mrs Nixon; based on a photograph used with the courtesy and permission of the Nixon Presidential Library.]

Patricia Nixon figures in Adams’ opera significantly as does the wife of Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing (pronounced Jee-yong Ching) who headed the infamous Gang of Four after Mao’s death – in fact one of the most memorable pieces in Adams’ opera is I am the wife of Mao Zedong!

In 1966 Mao Zedong launched the ill-fated, horrific Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution sending frenzied armies of Red Guards frantically waving their little Red Books (filled with Mao’s quotations – now a popular tourist item) as they spread destruction throughout China, but starting to wind down as Nixon arrived. Meanwhile China became a member of the UN in 1971 as the US was rapidly building its Mutually Assured Destruction military stance. So here we have these two enormously major players on World Center Stage facing each other to maneuver the Knights, Rooks, Bishops, Kings – and pawns too – in a World-Scale, immense chess game, very much visualized by Adams.

Casting of These Roles

Having created the role of Mao Zedong in its original production, John Duykers reprises this dynamic role in Long Beach having performed operas with San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Chicago’s Lyric, Covent Garden-London, LA Opera, et al and is on the award-winning DVD of “Nixon in China” featured on Public Television’s “Great Performances” which is available as are CDs – see below.

Opposite him as Richard M Nixon is Michael Chioldi who debuted at the Met with the late, great Luciano Pavarotti, having appeared also in San Francisco Opera, Houston, Chicago, Santa Fe, LA, and the Washington National Opera. His presentation in Long Beach of Nixon was riveting, with multiple showings of Nixon’s famed “V for Victory” gestures with arms aloft.

[Below: President Nixon (Michael Chioldi), arms outstreched, flashes the victory sign, as Chairman Mao (John Duykers) rests in his chair and Zhao Enlai (Roberto Gomez) looks on; edited image, based on a Keith Ian Pelakoff photograph, courtesy of the Long Beach Opera.]

Nixon’s wife Patricia Nixon is sung by Suzan Hanson having sung at LBO before as well as having done this very role at Italy’s famed Arena di Verona. She was dressed in red with her little handbag – and shown to have a drinking problem, giving a stunning performance armed with toothy smiles, grabbing laughter again and again.

The Wife of Mao Zedong (Jiang Qing) is sung by Ani Maldjian who has performed at LBO before in their adorable production of Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen” and Diary of Anne Frank, coming with training at San Francisco and Seattle operas, among others!  She portrayed this role menacingly, ultimately brandishing an AK-47 at everyone, including Nixon.

[Below: Jiang Qing (Ani Maldjian) greets President Nixon (Michael Chioldi) holding her AK-47; edited image, based on a Keith Ian Pelakoff photograph, courtesy of the Long Beach Opera.]

Premier Zhou Enlai is wonderfully performed by Roberto Perlas Gomez who returns to LBO having sung in LBO’s terrific re-discovered (lost for 269 years!) Vivaldi opera Motezuma (which I reviewed last year), having done Zhou Enlai at the Arena di Verona, whose fat portfolio includes performances at San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, LA Opera, Michigan Opera et al. He ends the three-hour long opera with very lyrical, soft, lushly romantic music having the last say, “How much of what we did was good?”

Henry Kissinger is performed by Kyle Albertson whose operatic credentials are vast with such delicious roles as Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen”, Monterone inVerdi’s “Rigoletto”, Leporello in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Dr Miracle in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” and Dr Bartolo in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. (How much fun can you have on stage??).

Three singers appear as Mao’s secretaries filling out the cast, clad in red and wearing white lampshade hats (literally!!), as gigantic sedan chairs are driven about the stage in which Mao, Enlai, Nixon and Kissinger repose during very sharp exchanges between Mao and Nixon – extremely effective theater at its best -recalling that famous picture of Nixon and Mao sitting in such enormous over-stuffed chairs as they met.

But Mr Albertson figures prominently in the Opera within the Opera in Act II of Adams’ “Nixon in China” ( “The Red Detachment of Women”) when Kissinger is portrayed as an evil, lecherous Bad Guy in this stage production within a stage production – the Nixon’s looking on in dismay – as wildly acrobatic dancers leap across the stage with furious dynamism often associated with the Chinese theatrical stage. Jiang Qing seizes a copy of Mao’s famed “Little Red Book” from the sky, and suddenly all of the People’s Liberation Army troops on stage have their own copy to wave!! This Act was dazzling, again to say the least.

We show the Nixons bidding farewell on Tiananmen Square (by permission, Nixon Library, which is in nearby Yorba Linda and very much worth a visit –  www.nixonlibrary.gov ).

[Below: a historic photograph of Patricia and Richard Nixon, waving goodbye to the People’s Republic of China; resized image of a photograph, with the courtesy and permission of the Nixon Presidential Library.]

An excellent new CD recording of “Nixon in China” just came out by Opera Colorado: Naxos CD # 8.669022-24 (3 discs); another recording was made in 1987 by the Orchestra of St Luke’s, but the new one is much better. A different production was just presented 14 March 2010 in Vancouver, BC to coincide with their Winter Olympic Games as part of their Cultural Olympics directed by the late Opera Pacific’s former GM John DeMain, and the Met in New York will present it next season conducted by the composer in an updated Peter Sellars production which I certainly intend to see. They said it will be at their world-wide film-theaters.

Historic Retrospectives – and Ironies Abound!

Long Beach Opera is hardly a newcomer to opera in Southern California having been here 31 years –longer than Los Angeles Opera, but pursuing their own unique agenda of operatic material as this season ably demonstrates: LBO just did Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik”, and is literally taking the plunge in doing modern American composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice” poolside, coming up June 11, 12 and 13 which should make quite a splash. . . !  You sit by the pool – instead of in an Opera House, just as LBO has done opera in the bowels of a great ship (the Queen Mary)!

LBO has a rich legacy of presenting not-often-seen operas, like “Strauss Meets Frankenstein” (2008), Leos Janacek’s mysterious “From the House of the Dead” (1997), Henry Purcell’s “The Indian American Queen: (1998), Moliere’s play “The Imaginary Invalid” (1999), Victor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” (2009) in addition to those noted above in the cast listing. Great opera stars have graced LBO’s stage over the years like Jerome Hines, James Morris, Jerry Hadley and Ruth Ann Swenson!

LBO’s production features 12 dancers from the Long Beach Ballet, 40 choir singers, 4 saxophones, and two side-by-side concert grand pianos in the 50+ piece orchestra all brilliantly conducted by LBO’s Boss Andreas Mitisek at whose left elbow I sat!  With this production of “Nixon in China”, we can look back to that mega-event 38 years ago and appreciate what has happened in the interim.

Today you can buy a Coca Cola on Tiananmen Square, grab a McDonald’s burger across the street from the Beijing Hotel all within site of Mao’s tomb. And just a few miles from Nixon’s birthplace-burial site and Presidential Library (where the real Nixon in China is prominantly featured) has arisen a vast Chinese Temple complex which we picture – compare these buildings to that we picture above of Tiananmen Gate – where Mao proclaimed the PRC – a smaller but very different world today!!

[Below: the Chinese temple in Hacienda Heights, a few miles from Yorba Linda, California, Nixon’s boyhood home and the location of the Nixon Presidential Library; resized image, based on a photograph by Tom.]

This smashing production of “Nixon in China” not-to be-missed, and next presented on March 28, 2010. (Telephone 562 432-5934,  www.LongBeachOpera.org.)


Tags: Tom's Reviews