Opera Warhorses

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

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25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012

June 10th, 2012

San Francisco Opera’s current General Director, David Gockley, who has been a champion of integrating new works into a repertory that balances operatic tradition with innovation, has long been associated with Adams’ “Nixon in China”. In fact, the premiere of this work occurred in 1987 at Houston Grand Opera, under Gockley’s leadership, in the season that opened Houston’s Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

Gockley chose the opera’s 25th anniversary for its first performances by the San Francisco company, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the historical event, President Nixon’s diplomatic initiatives in Beijing. He selected a new production from the Vancouver Opera that has already premiered in Vancouver and Kansas City.

Gockley, in the program notes, makes the point that Terence McEwen, one of his five predecessors as San Francisco Opera General Director, rejected the idea of San Francisco Opera presenting the opera from the team of composer John Adams and stage director Peter Sellars at its inception, and did so with peremptory emphasis.

Perhaps as a kind of penance, the other two operatic products of the Adams-Sellars collaboration – “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic” (the latter, a world premiere) – were mounted by San Francisco Opera during the respective general directorships of Lotfi Mansouri and Pamela Rosenberg, McEwen’s immediate successors in the post.

That said, it seems that the wait for the quarter-century anniversary is felicitous and justified, and the performances gives the sophisticated San Francisco audiences a chance to better evaluate this iconoclastic opera and its place in the history of the operatic repertory. It also gives the chance for a new generation of artists (even though several veterans of “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer” still perform), to take on the roles, and new productions and stagings to be mounted.

A New Way for Opera to Look at History

From early in the opera’s conception, it was intended as a mix of the images created and manipulated (by both the Americans and Chinese) for the world’s consumption with what librettist Alice Goodman and Sellars imagined might be the private thoughts of each of six principals (the Americans President Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon, Secretary Henry Kissinger) and the Chinese (Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, his fourth wife, Madame Mao, and Premier Chou En-Lai).

The thoughts and conversations we as the audience overhear are little fantasies conceived by Sellars and his librettist Goodman a decade and a half after the actual events (even though in most cases suggested by Goodman’s impressive body of research into the biographies and writings of those six historical figures).

“Nixon’s” original creative team had set out to avoid caricatures and thus Goodman provided a libretto that made all of the principals seem less predictable, more human, and possibly more inscrutable than would have been the reputation of each in the late 1980s. As with all substantive works, its content can and will be re-interpreted by those who have experienced the quarter century of “unfolding events” that came afterwards.

[Below: President Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan) descends the stairs of Air Force One; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Brian Mulligan’s Nixon

A particular advantage of using the Vancouver production is its spectacular projections of images, the most vivid occurring at opera’s opening, when the audience is at one with Air Force One’s trans-Pacific flight, before its landing in the Chinese capital.

Then, descending the stairs of Air Force One is lyric baritone Brian Mulligan, in his role debut as President Nixon. Mulligan has been a mainstay at San Francisco Opera in the French and Italian repertories for half a decade, but, in addition to Nixon, elsewhere has taken on the title role in Adams’ “Klinghoffer” as well.

[Below: Brian Mulligan as President Richard M. Nixon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I found Mulligan’s portrait of the conflicted president effective, possibly more sympathetic than the opera’s creators originally intended. The Goodman-Sellars Nixon had grasped the power of the “new media” – his role in the televised landing on the moon, the transmission to the world of the Nixon-Mao handshake and the formal exchanges of toasts – although we know that subsequently the real Nixon was brought down by investigative reporting by the “old media”.

But Mulligan’s Nixon, giving Mao what composer Adams calls the Rotary Club handshake, seems, in our age dominated by new media and almost-anything-goes adversarial politics, like a futurist with history on his side.

Simon O’Neill’s Mao

Wagnerian tenor Simon O’Neill, whose Lohengrin I have praised [see my review at Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009] portrayed the aging Mao, in a physical performance that required the halting steps of the decrepit, overweight octogenarian. Speaking in opaque metaphors to the often mystified Americans and constantly surrounded by three sycophantic women, O’Neill’s vibrant heldentenor was often enlisted when forceful emphasis of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao was needed.

[Below: the thoughts of Chairman Mao (Simon O’Neill, seated) are recorded for posterity by the First (Ginger Costa-Jackson, left), Second (Buffy Baggott, center) and Third (Nicole Birkland, right) Secretaries; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En-Lai

Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan portrayed the aging revolutionary, Chou En-Lai, who is perhaps the most sympathetically drawn of the six characters. Yuan was able to portray a stoic, disillusioned diplomat, an effective operative even though he himself was ultimately to be a victim of Mao’s spite.

[Below: Chen-Ye Yuan as Premier Chou En-Lai; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maria Kanyova’s Pat Nixon

Also sympathetically drawn is Pat Nixon, who seems to be the embodiment of the fundamental heartland American values, and who finds the stridency of the revolutionary ballet presented to the American guests so disquieting. American soprano Maria Kanyova is a veteran of this role, and  presented a distinguished and sympathetic reading of her challenging aria This is Prophetic! – the longest monologue in the opera.

[Below: Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The “Red Deliverance” and Hye Jung Lee’s Madame Mao Tse-Tung

The extensive ballet sequence The Red Deliverance of Women both celebrates and parodizes the Revolutionary arts presided over by the strident fourth wife of Mao Tse-Tung, Chiang Ch’ing. Its incorporation into “Nixon in China” was one of the milestones in new approaches to integrating drama, music and dance into late 20th century opera.

Spectacularly created by Chinese choreographer Wen Wei Wang, the ballet starred Chiharu Shibata (as Wu Ching-Hua) and Bryan Ketron (as Hung Ch’ang Ch’ing).

[Below: a scene from the revolutionary ballet being performed for the American visitors; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

If there is a “hit song” in “Nixon in China”, it has to be Madame Mao’s I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung, delivered with much force of personality by Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee.

[Below: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Patrick Carfizzi’s Henry Kissinger and the Final Sextet

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, with his admirable acting and vocal skills, made the most of the buffo (Sellars’ term) role of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, which, to me, remains  the least convincing part of “Nixon”.

In the final scene, which the creators have associated with the sextet that concludes Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, each of the six principals, standing behind contemporary images of the characters that they portray, ponder the meaning of all that has happened in this meeting of persons of such markedly different cultural backgrounds and worldviews.

[Below: from left to right, Dr Henry Kissinger (Patrick Carfizzi), Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova), Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan), Mao Tse-tung (Simon O’Neill), Madame Mao (Hye Jung Lee) and Chou En-Lai (Chen-Ye Yuan) are lost in their own thoughts about what has happened; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In the case of a world premiere, I believe it incumbent on the reviewer to assess the new work by such standards as that reviewer regards as relevant. In the case of an established work, and Adams’ “Nixon” unquestionably has earned the right to be regarded as an important representative of late 20th century opera, I believe it appropriate to judge the production and performance apart from judging the opera itself.

I believe that through this production, the San Francisco Opera has chosen an excellent mechanism for displaying the obvious virtues of the piece – which includes its rich and often melodic orchestration and a fascinating approach to defining the unique thought processes of different individuals.

I expect to post a second commentary, likely in the form of a review of a second performance in this San Francisco Opera production run, in which I expect to comment  further about the opera itself.

For those knowledgeable or curious about the opera, I recommend this production as an excellent introduction to the opera’s strengths.

The performance strengths include the conducting by Lawrence Renes, the stage direction of Michael Cavanagh, and the sets of Erhard Rom.

Mao’s three secretaries were sung by Ginger Costa-Jackson (who sang the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the 2011 Glimmerglass Festival), Buffy Baggott and Nicole Birkland.

For a review of a previous prodution of this opera elsewhere, with relevant pictures provided by the Nixon Presidential Library, see: Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong Dance at Smashing Long Beach Opera “Nixon in China” – March 20, 2010.

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