Nixon in China: Composer John Adams and baritone Robert Orth sing the praises of of contemporary opera
My feature on Nixon in China in today's Star has vanished without a trace in the electronic realm, so here is my original draft -- with corrections:
“We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies? Who are
Our friends? The Eastern Hemisphere
beckoned to us, and we have flown
East of the sun, west of the moon
Across an ocean of distrust
Filled with the bodies of our lost;
The earth’s Sea of Tranquility.
It’s prime time in the U.S.A.”
These couplets look back on a pivotal point in world history, while getting inside the mind of one of the most notorious politicians of our age.
The politician is former American president Richard Milhous Nixon. The place is the airport tarmac in Beijing, China. The date is Feb. 21, 1972.
The Republican President, still popular at the end of his first term in office, decided to make a mark on posterity by breaking through a quarter century of tense silence between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
The world watched this surprise move with bated breath.
What must have been going through the thoughts of President Nixon, his steadfast wife Pat, an aging Chairman Mao, his politically radical wife Jiang Qing, and the two figures who made things happen behind the scenes: American secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai?
American composer John Adams had never written an opera score and poet Alice Goodman had never written a libretto, but that didn’t stop them from trying to answer the question on the musical stage.
It doesn’t matter whether it was beginner’s luck or the alchemy of having two exceptionally bright creative minds feed off each other, but the opera Nixon in China was born at the Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 22, 1987.
“I’m amazed that I wrote the piece because I had no experience writing for solo voice and I had no experience writing for opera or any kind of stage,” admits Adams, who is now one of the world’s best-known and best-loved composers of art music. “So, the first time out, I wrote this piece that’s had quite a healthy life throughout the world.”
On Wednesday night, the composer conducted the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Nixon in China – a Peter Sellars-directed production that Canadians will be able to see live at Cineplex theatres on Feb. 12.
On Saturday afternoon, Nixon in China gets its Canadian Opera Company premiere, at the Four Seasons Centre. This is a co-production that originated at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2004.
Adams himself is having a starry moment in these parts: His music is the focus of this year’s New Creations Festival, organized by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (see sidebar).
Since writing Nixon in China, Adams has come up with several other operas, including The Death of Klinghoffer (about a ship passenger killed during an act of terrorism in 1985) and, more recently, Doctor Atomic, which takes us inside the mind of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer just before the atomic bomb he invented is about to be dropped on two Japanese cities in 1945.
All of these works are about our times and our issues. Just don’t call them docu-operas.
“Nobody ever picks up a novel and says, oh, this is a docu-novel or a CNN-novel because it deals with events that are in our lifetime, nor do they say that about movies. But when I compose and opera about an event that happened, then it becomes a docu-opera,” says Adams, with obvious frustration. “It’s so ridiculous and so demeaning to what I’ve done that I can’t even begin to understand it.”
For the composer, opera at its best has to be about there here and now. “I think if opera is going to have any kind of life and future, it really ought to be dealing with themes and archetypes that are very much a part of our contemporary existence,” Adams insists.
Nixon’s self-consciousness about the place he is making for himself in history, and the awareness that every move he makes and every word he utters will be picked up by the media is even more relevant in 2011 than it was in 1972.
Th trick is to turn this into art.
Adams says that, in his operas, he has tried to outline “Leitmotifs in every American’s consciousness. To poeticize it, to raise it to the level of art is, I think, a very meaningful activity.”
Music is an essential ingredient.
Although it’s labeled as minimalist, Adam’s rhythmically complex score is much more than that. It is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of rhythm and melody that, with each twist of the plot, almost imperceptibly shifts to underpin a fresh new mood and thrust.
“When it lines up it lines up and makes perfect sense and it’s like rock ‘n’ roll,” says baritone Robert Orth, who portrays Nixon in the Canadian Opera Company production.
Director James Robinson first cast the singer in this production’s premiere in St. Louis, back in 2004.
Tall and gregarious, with an open face and ready laugh, Orth is almost the physical and emotional opposite of the taciturn former President. But the baritone is also a consummate actor.
“Sometimes when I’m in rehearsal, I’ll find myself doing some gesture,” Orth relates with a big shrug. “And then I’ll think, oh, that’s not very Nixonian. He was much stiffer than that. So you find a way to express a character within those boundaries.”
Over the course of the last seven years, Orth has become the definitive Richard Nixon on the opera stage.
“I’m so grateful to him. How many people are grateful to Richard Nixon?” the baritone laughs.
Orth is also grateful for new opera, which has allowed him to play Nixon, former President Lyndon B. Johnson (in Aug. 4, 1964, by Steven Stucky) and architect Frank Lloyd Wright (in Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow).
“I feel so fortunate, so blessed to be able to do these things, because it speaks to who I am; it is who I am,” says Orth. “I live vocally and personally in this land between the European artform and the American musical theatre. So many of these new pieces in English occupy that land.”
The singer loves the directness of musical theatre – and many scenes of Nixon in China.
At the close of Act III, Premier Zhou reflects the doubts of anyone in a position of responsibility when he sings, “How much of what we did was good?”
“You take these people, they’re just ordinary people, but they’re thrown into these extraordinary situations and they have to make decisions that affect millions, if not billions of people,” Orth explains.
“Isn’t that what all great stories are about – people being thrown into interesting, or extraordinary or difficult situations?”
Here is Walter Cronkite introducing a broadcast of the opera's premiere production, which was directed by Peter Sellars at Houston Grand Opera (the music starts at the 4-1/2-minute mark):
Nixon on CD
Robert Orth is one of four members of the principal cast of the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China to be featured on a 3-CD box released by Naxos in 2009. The strong singing and exceptionally muscular and nuanced playing by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under American star conductor Marin Alsop make for a richly satisfying listen. The booklet includes the full libretto.
For album details, click here.
The label Nonesuch has also reissued the original cast recording. Details here.
Toronto’s John Adams moment
Nixon in China composer John Adams is the featured guest at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival.
On the programs are:
-Harmonielehre and one of Adams’ most popular pieces, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, with percussionist Evelyn Glennie, on Mar. 2
-The Canadian premiere of City Noir, which was co-commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on Mar. 5
-Tromba Lontana, with avant garde chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird, on Mar. 10.