Nixon in China. John Adams’ first opera. San Francisco Opera’s series of performances (which began June 8th) represent the San Francisco Bay Area premiere of the fully staged opera, the 25th anniversary of the work (a concerted version with a piano reduction of the score took place here before the formal Houston premiere in 1987), and the 40th anniversary of the events which inspired the opera. As the title suggests, Nixon in China traces the story of Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972. An interesting historical aside: had democrat Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 election instead, a diplomatic visit to China would have been practically impossible. Nixon, as a republican and an anti-communist, stood a much greater chance of diplomatic success than perhaps any other american politician of the day.
Naturally, I was curious how the Spirit of ’76 would be represented – it’s not everyday you see a Boeing 707 inside an opera house! The plane was projected onto a screen during the overture, and at one point Nixon was illuminated behind the screen so as to appear inside the plane. This was very effective from most parts of the theater, unfortunately the angle from where I was sitting made Nixon appear between two windows instead of properly framed within one. As the plane landed, the screen was withdrawn to reveal a steel/foam/wood model of the plane from which the President and Mrs. Nixon descended. At this point, President Nixon (Brian Mulligan) waved. The wave was in such good imitation of Nixon that the audience (most of whom were old enough to remember Nixon as president) tittered.
The banquet scene ending act I was wonderful – the toasts moved the scene from a dignified political dinner into a wild and drunken party with cast members dancing on tables and the crowd on stage cheering. Ingenious use of projected images and video on screens added depth to the stage, from the landing of the Spirit of ’76 to Pat Nixon’s tour of Beijing.
As the opera progressed, it was interesting to track the moods of the characters – for example, Nixon starts out almost comically upbeat and hopeful in the “news” aria, moves through the diplomatic scenes in act I into confusion, is plunged into disbelief in act II, and by the time the opera comes to a close, he seems a hollow sort of fellow who’s fallen into exhaustion and can’t wait to get home. Brian Mulligan did a magnificent job in his debut as Nixon, showing his character’s transformation both through acting (including a rather athletic choreography for “News! News! News!”) and superb musicianship. In addition to Mulligan as Nixon, role debutes included Hye Jung Lee as a fiercely dynamic Chiang Ch’ing and Patrick Carfazzi as a very convincing Henry Kissinger.
Recently someone commented to me that Nixon In China is a unique opera in that it has no strictly sympathetic characters. The Nixons and Kissinger are presented as bumbling and stupid, Mao is all frailty and pomp, Chiang ch’ing is more than a little crazy—not to mention bloodthirsty—and Chou En-lai, while enigmatic remains outside any audience sympathy though it falls to him to end the opera with the question “how much of what we did was good?”. However, one doesn’t need to feel sympathetic towards a character to appreciate great singing. Personally, I felt that act II was among the most riveting musical experiences I’ve ever had. The blending of “reality” with the action of the Red Detachment of Women was mindbogglingly well done, the drama of Chiang Ch’ing’s aria “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” absolutely riveting. Hye Jung Lee sang with great force and successfully navigated the extreme range of Adams’ writing. The staging at this juncture included the whole chorus waving their little red books in violent rhythm and a flag draped dais is covered in “dead bodies” under all red lighting. This scene offered a glimpse into the results of the activities of the Gang of Four, of which Chiang Ch’ing was a member (for her activities during the Cultural Revolution she was later sentenced to death, which was commuted to life in prison. She hanged herself in 1991).
My only complaint is that the orchestra seemed less-than well prepared. The string section in particular seemed unable to play together. While Nixon in China is an example of Adams’ more minimalist influenced writing, it is by no means simple. The complex rhythmic patterns and off-beat accents would have benefited from a more coherent reading. I know that the company is producing three operas at once, perhaps rehearsal time was limited. These minor ensemble problems aside, the production was quite well done, and I enjoyed the opera enough to want to see it a second time the following week.
The final act was quite well done. It showed each of the characters reminiscing about their experiences, hopes, dreams, and ideas. Perhaps the most stunning line for the grayer-than-usual new music audience on the whole opera took place at this point: Chiang Ch’ing screams in the direction of the audience “let’s show these mother f*ckers how to dance” and then drags Mao around the stage as the Nixons struggle to keep pace before eventually fading into motionlessness. As the audience was shown more of each character’s personality (or lack thereof), my appreciation for the staging grew. The staging left little to the imagination, without ever getting in the way of the action. All in all, the San Francisco Opera’s production of Nixon in China did an excellent job of tracking the development of the characters, and held my interest through all three-and-a-half hours (including intermissions), which is quite an accomplishment for an opera without a single sympathetic character.
Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist