Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nixon in China in Vancouver . . .

This photo by Tim Matheson arrived in this morning's e-mail from The Vancouver Opera Association along with quotations from the various glowing reviews of Saturday's performance.
Time to add my own voice to that chorus: If you're in Vancouver, there are three performances left -- go now, see if you can book a ticket!!

I will admit that not all opera lovers fall for John Adams' music -- we had a lively conversation during the second intermission with another couple, very knowledgeable about opera, long-time subscribers to VOA, and the beautifully-tuxedoed (perfectly-tied lively-printed bow tie adding a pop of colour) male half argued vehemently against it -- he hated it, wanted to leave, but was staying in deference to his wife who loved it. As with most contemporary "art" music, melody is not what you come away with, yet I'm hearing music in my head days later -- the spectacularly-sopranoed intervals of Madame Mao's repetition of "the bo-ook" as she thrusts forth that little red volume, the big band dance fragments, Henry Kissinger's porno-gourmand lyrics (yes, really!). I would happily listen to the score again, even without all the other elements that bring opera to life, just to get another chance to pay attention to the orchestra -- VOA's did a stellar job Saturday night.

Wonderful casting, as well -- something you don't always say about opera where the voice might be perfect but the physicality less so. Nixon, played by Richard Orth, is astonishingly (and comically) convincing, as is Henry Kissinger (Thomas Hammons). Madame Mao (Tracy Dahl) terrifies in her petite but ferocious intensity and while I don't have a memory bank of Pat Nixon (Sally Dibblee) images for comparison, she certainly captures the era's political wives while bringing out another side of her husband.

I think what struck me most with this opera was the emphasis on audio-visual technology which was really beginning to shrink the world around the time of Nixon's 1972 visit to China. The moon landing was not far behind us and satellite technology meant we didn't have to wait for images of far-off events. Consequently, as Nixon's posing (beautifully parodied in Adams's opera) reminds us, politicians were more aware than ever of history's eye on them. In case the point wasn't clear enough through Nixon's posing, the opera featured camera crews with their film equipment and sound-recording devices as well as journalists jotting copious notes at every utterance. As well, the main actors moved across the stage against backdrops of their projected images (above is an example) either Warhol-like silkscreened ones or actual film projections taken from earlier in the show. Simulacra and stage actor and photographs of the actual historic personages repeated the message that we live in a visually-mediated world. So that while I might be happy enough listening to the score at home, this is an opera which really demands all the resources of the stage -- sight and sound together -- to work.

As you can see from the photo above, visuality is emphasized not only through audio-visual technology, but through good old-fashioned technologies of costume and stage set -- altho' as you can also see, there's not much old-fashioned about these costumes and set. Red, black-and-white, khaki all worked to evoke China -- both in its ancient aesthetic and in the rigors of the Cultural Revolution. Very effective and also powerfully gorgeous. Somehow minimalist-clean yet sumptuous at the same time. Very satisfying

****Have to add: The librettist, American poet Alice Goodman deserves mention -- obviously, the libretto structures everything else, bringing out characters, creating moods -- one particularly striking sequence with a repeated chant which captures the Cultural Revolution.
Also, an interesting detail is that the opera began from an idea of Peter Sellers who approached Adams.
The gorgeous ballet which unfolded onstage as part of the presentation put on for the President and his wife reminded me that I haven't been to ballet for ages -- so exquisite, and I must make it a goal to see more.
And finally, I must take time to applaud the VOA for sticking to its goal of bringing this opera to Canada despite the tough economic times that hit since the original commitment was made. The cultural leaders who make sure that we have great art not only of the past but also renewed by contemporary outlooks and styles and events deserve our appreciation.****

Interesting that so many who see this opera will only know Nixon through movies or through film clips -- mainly, of course, focussing on the "Tricky Dicky" of Watergate fame. But I'd read reviews of historian Margaret MacMillan's Nixon in China and had some idea that his position in history was being re-assessed. I'm putting the book on my summer reading list, but I know once it's in the house I'll have to read fast or guard it carefullly -- Pater, who remembers images from that week, is keen to revisit the period as well. And my friend and neighbour, Carol (and her husband Mike), also at Saturday's performance, is also beginning to read around the subject -- I see a dinner on the deck discussing Nixon in China this summer. All thanks to the VOA!

What about you? Have you seen the opera? Heard the score? Or do you remember images of that trip? Or changing awareness of China during the 70s? If you're in Vancouver, do consider seeing the opera to revisit a fascinating historical event.


  1. Great review, Frances, and, yes, the performances were stellar. thanks for your interesting points about the technology and for pointing out that it was fairly recent in that period that politicians had to be conscious of the technologically-mediated perceptions of their contributions to history. The technological effects did highlight that.

    I was struck by Nixon's enthusiastic early aria in which he repeats "History, we're making History!" and by Mao's contemptuous negative assessment of history and the need to destroy the past. Chou-en-lai puts history in another perspective when he asks, "How much of what we did was good?" The only really important question.

    I was completely engaged throughout, but most impressed with the second act with its beautiful ballet. Beautiful and very disturbing -- Kissinger's intervention was shocking!

    Wonderful multimedia work and brilliant performances. I too liked the music and agree that it is greatly enhanced by the dramatic staging. I will happily see this opera again in future.

    Yes, yes, a summer dinner on the deck sounds good. Maybe even necessary, as we are still talking about it...

    Thanks for your always interesting blog,

  2. I have never seen this, or heard it, only of it.

  3. It has been a long long time since I have seen this and your review brings back many memories. I also had to smile at the image portrayed of the couple you met during intermission. It could have been my husband and myself a couple of decades ago,when I dragged him off to all kinds of modern things, including this opera, which he attended only out of deference to me, although I do have to say that he did eventually come to love many of these things.

  4. Carol: Thanks for the insightful additions -- I think there's much more we could say about this opera (and we probably will!) Here's to summer and the deck!!
    LPC: Sadly, I don't think it gets performed often.
    Mardel: I knew, I just knew, you would have seen it!! You really have a breadth and depth of knowledge about classical music -- aren't we lucky having husbands who are amenable to trying out something new just because we like it?!

  5. Shocking to admit, but I have yet to see an opera. I would like to see a Mozart first, and would probably cope with someting more modern later on.
    Like you though, I too recently realised it has been an age since I saw a ballet and yet I used to see as many as I did plays. I am shocker for being stuck in a groove.
    Yes, it was Mothers Day on Sunday, ours is linked to lent for some reason.

  6. Alison: Pater's favourite is still the Barber of Seville, for sheer singability, I think. We're hoping to get back to London -- June? early July? -- and I notice that there are a few opera possibilities then -- didn't check the ballet yet, but I'm getting more and more motivated. Interesting about your Mother's Day timing; hadn't realized that.

  7. Wish we could join you all on the summer deck for what will surely be a spirited conversation on nixon!

    Thanks for coming to Nixon in China! Wonderful to hear that you enjoyed it.

    See you at the next opera!

    All the best,

    Ling Chan
    Vancouver Opera

  8. And if you want to try out a Mozart first, then you're in luck! The next thing the Vancouver Opera is doing is Marriage of Figaro, my personal favorite Mozart opera!

  9. Thanks Ling -- you're more than welcome to stop by our deck and join in!
    Chase: Yes, I should have mentioned that, but Alison lives in London, England so won't be able to make it -- my husband and I have tickets though, and are very much looking forward to it.


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