Metropolitan Opera simulcast: ‘Nixon in China’
special to the daily
“Nixon in China,” a three-act opera composed by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, John Adams, will be fourth in the 2010/2011 series of live New York Metropolitan Opera High Definition Broadcasts, a Met premier performance with productions held last year by Opera Colorado.
The broadcast will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, in the Finkel Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. Colorado Mountain College and the National Repertory Orchestra, which provide monetary, technical and staff support, welcome residents and visitors in Summit County and surrounding communities to attend these traditional and contemporary opera productions.
“Nixon in China” is a contemporary opera that deals with personalities and events in the Nixon years to which many of us have experienced or been exposed. Richard Nixon’s prime motivation for arranging a personal 1972 meeting in China with Premier Chou En-lai and Chairman Mao Tse-tung, among other notables, remains somewhat of a mystery. Critics of the day dubbed this as a “shabby political ploy” directed to promote his 1972 U.S. Presidential re-election. In a broader view of history, however, as captured in this opera, the intent was to achieve a more friendly, cooperative U.S. and China union that potentially would serve as a historical breakthrough.
The opera opens at an airfield outside of Beijing with Nixon accompanied by Pat Nixon, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and support staff, who disembark from the official “Spirit of 76” aircraft. Greetings exchanged with Premier Chou En-lai, and other officials, with a band playing in the background is an impressive moment, with a long row of a smartly dressed military contingent in long rows along the passageway.
The next scene in the study of Mao Tse-tung’s is a private meeting of the principles of the opera, serving both as a photo opportunity and a time for an exchange of pleasantries. Later that evening, the Nixons were feted in the Great Hall of the People, where Nixon, with glass held high, offered a toast, “Let us, in these five days, start a long march on new highways.” Although appearing to be an expression of conviviality, critics later referred to this event as, “here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists.”
Act II is perhaps the closest to what might be considered “grand opera” where the Nixons, joined by Mdm. Mao, attend a performance of the Peking Opera. Central in this act is a ballet, “The Red Detachment of Women,” in which an Asian girl prisoner is portrayed. She escapes but is caught by mercenaries who are in the process of whipping her to death. Pat Nixon impulsively intervenes. In a second scene of the ballet, “Dance of the Mercenaries,” the girl, with her newly found comrades – revolutionaries disguised as mercenaries – are set to liberate a village. Madam Mao interferes with this action, firing a pistol and taking the stage herself. Chinese opera!
Act III, the last night in Beijing, portrays the Nixons and the Maos in their own bedrooms, where they reflect on chapters in their lives that have led them to this time and place. Chou, in reflecting on his own life, asks the question: “How much of what we did was good? Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.” This closing reflection indeed still lingers in many circles today.
Musicians familiar with John Adams’ simplified, minimalist music compositions of a decade before may intuitively conclude that this composer could never produce the music for a “grand” opera and have little interest in attending a performance. However, in the decade following – and using “Nixon in China” as his first serious opera composition – critics describe the music as here leaping, there pulsing, here quiet and there sonorous, in keeping with dramatic stage actions, following the words of the libretto, written by poet Alice Goodan. Melodies, even hummable ones, are interspersed, particularly in the slow moments in the Act III reflections and soliloquies.
Peter Sellers, from the perspective of the stage producer of this opera, indicates that what has been composed will move across decades with a long life in which short term political points and cheap one-upmanship are put in context with strong stage action and strong vocal and orchestral support. The role of Richard Nixon, sung by baritone James Maddalena, perhaps shows a friendlier president than in real life, but has moments of self-aggrandizing admixed with expressions of courage and profound vision. The role of Chou En-lai is sung by baritone Russell Braun, Henry Kissinger by bass-baritone Richard Paul Fink, Mao Tse-tung by tenor Robert Brubaker, and Pat Nixon by soprano Janis Kell.
What will the audience viewing this opera conclude about Nixon now? No matter if Nixon has been perceived in the past as a villain or a hero, a victim or a creep, each person attending this opera can decide individually if indeed he will become one of our most enduring national characters. As many kings and nobles going before him, Nixon portrayed in this opera may well be long remembered.
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