Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Ladies and Gentlemen…Comrades and Friends…"

A little over 10 years after I left China for the first time, in the Los Angeles Opera staged John Adams' opera, "Nixon in China."

You might be thinking, "An opera starring Richard Nixon? That's…an interesting choice." Many critics shook their heads as well, not at all sure what to make of an opera whose characters were not only based on real people but the majority of whom were still alive at the time of these first productions (the opera originated in Houston in 1987 and was performed in LA in 1990).

My then-boss asked me if I'd like her ticket -- modern opera wasn't really her thing. I wasn't sure that it was my thing either, but I was fascinated by the idea of an opera based on Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China.

(click to embiggen -- it's a hoot!)

I'd gone to China in 1979 at the age of 20, not because I'd had any particular interest in China. The opportunity had come up, so I took it. I really hadn't had any idea how this decision would impact my life, that it would be in essence an abrupt left turn that took me away from any clearly marked path and into unknown territory. Ten years later, I was still wrestling with the experience. China had been so different from any previous point of reference, and now I was orienting my life around something I really didn't understand.

(if you look carefully, you'll find me)

So I'd tried to make up for that lack of context by reading Chinese history. In particular, I was fascinated by the enigmatic Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic, who held the position until his death in January 1976.

Zhou, unlike Mao, was still greatly admired by most of the Chinese people I met back then -- intellectuals for the most part. They and many Chinese saw Zhou as the "People's Premier," the rational  leader who moderated the worst of Mao's excesses, who truly cared about China and the Chinese people. 

The reality, of course, is far more ambiguous, complicated by the fact that Zhou, unlike Mao and many other Chinese leaders, did not leave extensive written records of his thoughts and philosophy. You have to search for the evidence with Zhou, mine other accounts, dig out salient quotes. You have to read between the lines.

Anyway, off I went to the Los Angeles premiere of "Nixon in China." This was a slightly revamped staging of the original Houston Grand Opera production, with the original cast. 

From the moment the curtains opened on a choir standing in a stylized Beijing winter landscape, I was hooked. 

Adams as a composer has his roots in minimalism, but "Nixon in China" goes far beyond the sort of repetition you might associate with that style. It is melodically lush and rhythmically complicated (how the conductor and the musicians count some of these passages is beyond me!). It has actual songs you can sing (well, I do anyway, but I'm told I'm a little strange). But what really impressed me beyond the music, which I love, is the insightful libretto by Alice Goodman. The words and music come together to convey an amazing amount of historical and character insight. If you want to see what I mean, take a look and a listen at the scene below. 

Contrast the smooth elegance of Zhou Enlai's vocal lines with the herky-jerky repetition of Nixon and his fixation on "news."

If you want to keep watching, Nixon's aria continues and descends into a truly paranoid passage about "rats chewing the sheets." So Nixon! And then it's on to Mao's entrance, accompanied by his three secretaries, "translating" his disjointed thoughts into a demented chorus.

But I think what impressed me the most was the opera's insightful portrayal of Zhou Enlai. Nixon is the star, Mao the force of nature, Madame Mao gets the show-stopping aria that closes Act 2, and Pat Nixon is the most sympathetic character. Zhou is much harder to characterize. He has two arias that bookend the opera, one at the end of Act 1, the other that closes the opera. What they do is show a character who has the most insight and awareness of of the cast, who grasps both the potential and the reality of the situation, of that moment in history and how they had arrived at it. He has the hope and the vision that they can truly create a better world, one where the different paths of nations are mutually respected. 

(I love this piece and this performance by baritone Sanford Sylvan. My biggest disappointment with other productions has been that I haven't seen another "Zhou" come close to what he does here)

But for all that, Zhou is ultimately a tragic character, because this awareness is combined with an inability--or an unwillingness--to prevent the worst of Mao's excesses. During the Cultural Revolution scene that closes Act 2, he is but a passive spectator--disapproving, perhaps, but helpless to prevent the chaos. At the end of the opera, he is left to wonder: "How much of what we did was good?"

Speaking of Madame Mao, her aria is a total blast, the dramatic highpoint of the opera: 

The video above is from the Metropolitan Opera's production in 2011. Yep, "Nixon in China" made it to the Met -- and in fact, after that uncertain premiere back in the late 80s and early 90s, it is now probably the most widely performed contemporary opera of our time. My hometown San Diego Opera just finished four performances to stellar reviews, and yes, I went. Twice.

p.s. I would be remiss if I didn't add one of Pat Nixon's arias. They are truly beautiful. Sorry about the ad preceding it!

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. Wow. Who woulda thunk? And "Madame Mao's aria"... chilling, to say the least. Thanks, Lisa! (I think... :-)

    1. Isn't that great? She was the Madame Mao at the San Diego Opera and was a blast to watch and listen to. The audience went wild, especially the Friday night show. I was really heartened to see how enthusiastic San Diego (which has a reputation of a conservative city in many ways) was about this modern work.

    2. p.s. I just added one of Pat's arias, because it's so beautiful!

  2. I was planning on saying something (hopefully) funny, but then I began listening to the arias... that was 30 minutes ago. What a fascinating opera! And you're right, Madame Mao was a showstopper. Amazing, and thanks for opening my eyes, Lisa, to something I must see--and hear live.