Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Saturday's Met Opera in HD: "Nixon in China"

This Saturday, February 12, American composer John Adams makes his Metropolitan Opera debut when he takes the podium to conduct his 1987 opera, Nixon in China. The performance will be seen in movie theaters across America, courtesy of the ongoing Met in HD series and its partnership with Denver's Fathom Events. The opera begins promptly at 11:00 Mountain Time, with a running time (including intermissions) of about four hours.

Colorado venues will include several Denver-area Regal Cinemas (Downtown Pavilions, So. Colorado Blvd, Greenwood Plaza, Colorado Mills), AMC Theatres (Westminster, Highlands Ranch), and Cinemark Theatres (Aurora, Boulder), as well as movie complexes in Fort Collins, Greeley, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Durango. Check local listings for your nearest location.

This Adams opera is appearing for the first time on the stage at New York's Metropolitan. The work received its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera (one of its commissioning agents) and deals specifically with a single historical moment, the momentous face-to-face meeting between Richard Nixon, the sitting American president, and legendary Chinese ruler Mao Zedung. Four other main characters are depicted in the opera (libretto by Minnesota poet Alice Goodman): First Lady Pat Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Jiang Qing ("Mrs. Mao"), and Premier Zhou Enlai.

Appearing as Nixon is baritone James Maddelena, the man who created the role nearly 24 years ago. This is a reunion of sorts since the producer of the Met's debut, Peter Sellars, was also responsible for the Houston premiere. The remaining cast includes soprano Janice Kelly [Pat Nixon], tenor Robert Brubaker [Mao], soprano Kathleen Kim [Jiang], bass Richard Paul Fink [Kissinger], and baritone Russell Braun [Zhou].

Composer Adams is known for his minimalist musical style, and the score to Nixon in China is straight out of his most minimal period. A review of last week's opening night performance by New York Magazine columnist Justin Davidson cites, "the importance of a transformative score that demonstrated the full range of what Minimalism could accomplish." The concept that minimalism has a "full range" seems incongruous, but the music does create a surprisingly fulsome sound behind the singers.

Anyone who has come of age in the decades since Nixon's historic 1972 visit is probably puzzled by all the hoopla. But China was seen then in the role of the great unknown, a Communist giant so intent on its own internal vision of ethnic cleansing— a twenty-plus year orgy of the subjugation of its intellectual elite, even to the point of mass murder on a near-Stalinistic scale— that it had virtually no political or economic links to the outside world during that time. The China of today, with its Western-style industrialization and modernity, is vastly different from the country Mao and his cronies had ruled with an iron fist. Some historians claim only a Republican president like Nixon could have bridged the gap with a Communist regime and survived what might have been another "Red" hunt, had a Democratic president made a similar effort. Others liken Nixon's efforts to those of Commodore Perry in the 1850s, when a Shogun-dominated Japan finally opened its doors to trade with the West.

The events depicted in Nixon in China occasionally seem as distant from us as the world of the Genoan doge appears in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. But the music serves to remind us that this is truly a modern work, no matter how much librettist Goodman tried to create a timeless story of the clash of two cultures.

1 comment:

  1. Regular readers will note that "Nixon in China" was part of the Opera Colorado lineup in June 2008. A live recording of that production -- a three-CD set -- was released on the Naxos label in September 2009.