"We live in an uncertain time," says Premier Chou En-lai to Richard Nixon when the latter lands in China. It is 1972, just four months before the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex. President Nixon is still a hero. This is the first visit to China by a sitting American president. The diplomatic coup is the subject of John Adam's opera Nixon in China, the closing opera of the 2004-2005 Minnesota Opera season.
One of the biggest conundrums of modern opera is the first and foremost question: What stories should be told through the medium? Composers have the difficult task of creating new music that simultaneously fits in the traditional operatic canon and breaks new ground, while telling a compelling 'new' story that works with the platform of opera. Often, either the music or the storytelling strikes a discord in the ears of opera goers accustomed to the cannon. Last season's production of The Handmaid's Tale is a case in point. While the futuristic sci-fi thriller was a great work of fiction, it left me wishing it had instead been at a play or a film based on Margaret Atwood's novel. It also left me wondering if I would ever enjoy modern opera.
Let's make it official: John Adams and the Minnesota Opera have converted me to modern opera - and even to (gasp!) Minimalism.
Upon first hearing the title Nixon in China, you may be prone to snicker or a good eye-roll. But don't be too hasty. Here, Adams' takes his cue from Mozart, Puccini and especially from Verdi, and hones in on political drama. In the original 1987 production director Peter Sellars used a replica of The Spirit of '76, which landed onstage in the first act. In the Minnesota Opera production, six large '70s-style TV consoles replay actual media footage of the landing. Traditionalists, do not be suspicious; set designer Allen Moyer's TVs are neither gimmicky nor distracting, but an integral part of an opera that successfully conveys the historical magnitude of the world event. Once during each of the three acts we also see (but never hear) a nuclear American family glued to their own TV set while they down their TV dinners. All eyes are on Nixon and Mao Tse-tung.
It is difficult to disentangle Nixon from a shallow caricature, jowls and all. But librettist Alice Goodman has. Scenes of the life of a public servant are followed by private moments with wife Pat. Nixon develops a full character who has deep emotions, desires and fears. A flawless performance by baritone Carlos Archuleta as the president seals the deal.
Act I reels us in with its optimism and promise of political understanding and compromise. The choruses in this first act will knock your socks off. The recreation of dialogue in Act I, scene II is especially riveting and believable. (Incidentally, these talks were recently declassified, and are available online at the National Security Archive.) In Act II, we eavesdrop on the inevitable philosophical sparing between communist and capitalist. In one of the many dazzling moments of synergy between Adams and Goodman, the Chinese credo "founders first, profiteers second" skulks in with all the force it was meant to have. Here, the use of Minimalist repetition underscores the emotionality of propaganda. The juxtaposition of the influential first ladies,
Madame Mao and Pat Nixon, further underscores the tension between the two states. Chou En-lai is the one character in Nixon who can observe the events impartially. Chou En-lai acts as a poignant witness and least agenda-d judge. He calls us to reflect on the events beyond their entertainment value. Raymond Ayers' En-lai is particularly sensitive and strong, and adds substance to that dimension of political analysis. In an aside in Act III, when all figures are spent he asks, "How much of what we did was good?"
In addition to Archuleta, coloratura soprano Helen Todd, who sings the role of Madame Mao, is a standout in this production. Todd portrays the dual-sided Queen of the Night character with the right mix of passion and restraint. There is no weak link in this performance, however, which is becoming the welcome standard at the Minnesota Opera. Tenor Simon O'Neill is a powerful Mao Tse-tung; Andrew Wilkowske is vibrant as Henry Kissenger, the comic foil of the opera. One warning for all you traditionalists: As per Adams' direction, the leads are all miked. Do not despair! The sound is expertly projected to create the theatrical atmosphere that Adams sought. The singers never overpower the orchestra's lyrical interpretation of Adams' stunning composition, and you will not feel as if you've stepped into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Adams' music is highly emotional, and the orchestra delivered a particularly emotional experience for its audience. Clearly Maestro Antony Walker brings out the best in the Minnesota Opera Orchestra. In Act I, the sounds of timpani and piano are married with such precision and purpose the listener's heart swells in anticipation, as the original viewers in February of 1972 who were tethered to their TV sets.
Partnering again with Sellars, Adams' current project is Dr. Atomic, which tells the story of (whom else?) J. Robert Oppenheimer. The opera will premiere this October at the San Francisco Opera. This opera buff is convinced that political intrigue makes for far better drama than the stuff of fiction and myths. I for one would be thrilled if Adams would tackle the Viktor Yushchenko poisoning.
It was nothing short of a phenomenal season for the Minnesota Opera. The company should be applauded for taking bold risks like Nixon and Maria Padilla in a sluggish economy. Next season, look forward to two American premieres by the Minnesota Opera: Saverio Mercadante's Orazi & Curiazi, and Petitgirard's Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man. (My newfound appreciation for modern opera will surely be put to good use for the latter production.) The two chosen "blockbusters" for the 2005-2006 season are Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's Tosca. I've wondered lately, in a city with limited repertoires, why the few companies performing opera don't coordinate to prevent too much overlap for opera devotees and newbies alike - last year's redundancies of Carmen, and next year's Tosca redundancies are examples. But when the opera is this astounding, I don't mind a little repetition.