17 June 2012
from vision to inheritance
After Attila on Tuesday I reached the BART platform just as my train was pulling in – and, unusually for that hour, it was a full-length train (they do need full-length trains on that line late at night, they just rarely run them; it’s all part of BART’s project to make commuting as expensive and unpleasant as possible). So I was pretty pleased with my BART luck and wondered how long it would last. Not long, was the answer: early Thursday morning a fire in west Oakland shut down the transbay tube. There I was, stranded in the east bay, with an expensive ticket to an excellent seat for that night’s performance of the John Adams/Alice Goodman/Peter Sellars opera Nixon in China, which I have wanted to see on stage since its premiere in Houston twenty-five years ago. People chuckle at my need to get to the theater early, but in the back of my mind I’m always thinking What if BART stalls? What if something happens? You know what it’s like when you realize your paranoia is justified? That's how I felt. (Which is not a bad frame of mind in which to contemplate the ambiguities of Richard Nixon, actually.)
Anyway, I attempted to keep my panicking to a minimum (not sure I succeeded) and with help from V I made it to Civic Center in plenty of time (even for me) for that night’s performance, the second of the run. I love this opera and have heard both recordings dozens (maybe hundreds?) of times. But I have never seen it in any form, having missed the broadcast of the original production as well as the Met livecast from last year. I’m going to start off with something negative, because I pretty much only have the one thing (and it’s not a fault of the production, but a preference of the composer, for reasons I do not understand): the amplification, though not as bad as it might be, led to some strange occasionally disembodied and flattened voices, and I sometimes felt the cast was singing against rather than with the orchestra. Everything else about the production – design, staging, lighting, costumes, cast, orchestra – is just completely awesome. (Tickets available here.)
Initially I did have some hesitation about Maria Kanyova’s Pat Nixon, who seemed a bit too much like a society woman – in fact, I realized after a few minutes that she was playing her as if she were Nancy Reagan. The actual Pat Nixon had a recessive, fragile quality that in the cultural context of her time was often read as a regressive banality, an active rejection of the counterculture and the feminist movement. (Now she seems a much more ambiguous and sadly gentle figure.) Kanyova’s portrayal certainly worked well, and it’s possible my opinion is colored by remembering the actual historical figure, at least as she appeared in the media of the time, but I think ideally the gentleness of the character would have been brought out a little more.
Confronted with this re-creation, those of us who remember not just the opera’s premiere but Nixon’s actual visit to China can’t help but reflect on the passing of time, of course. (The passing of time is also very much on the minds of the opera's protagonists: the aging and increasingly infirm Mao, a leader from a previous generation, reflects that "revolution is a boy's game" and the Nixons reflect on life during World War II, Pat at home and Richard in the Pacific Theater . . . "that was the time I should have died" he sings.) It’s strange to think that Nixon (who instituted wage-and-price controls, started the EPA, and funded the arts, along with many other less salutary actions) would be pilloried as a leftist these days by his own party. But then he always sought out vilification as justification for self-pity. He was a figure of deep Shakespearean shadows and conflicts; since then the presidential parade has mostly illustrated the banality of evil, and the advancing derangements of illegitimate empire. And Mao’s reputation as a political philosopher has sunk rapidly as the facts around the Cultural Revolution (and his whole repressive rule of China) become clearer. Both countries now are united in enriching their entrenched elites at the expense of the general population, particularly the working poor. It’s strange to look back on a time when the two countries were thought to represent such divergent paths.
Goodman’s superb libretto (allusive, elusive, evocative, poetic) concentrates on the days of the encounter, though it does hint at the darker qualities and other days of the protagonists: Nixon’s paranoia (“rats begin to chew the sheets”), Mao’s serene indifference to the suffering of others. Mme Mao’s murderous, controlling rage is deftly pointed out in “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” her instantly celebrated aria that ends Act 2, in which ambiguous phrasing illuminates the character and indeed China’s situation. (During one intermission I heard a ninety-year-old woman exclaim, "This is the most intense opera I've seen! It's the whole history of China!") In the aria's first lines (“I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung / Who raised the weak above the strong”) it’s ambiguous who is being modified by the second clause: is she saying that Mao raised the weak above the strong? or is she claiming that glory? or is the implication that she is doing it through him? Ambiguity makes clear her urge to power. In the third and fourth lines (“When I appear the people hang / Upon my words. . . “) Adams sets the third line twice so that you don’t miss the threat hidden in the line break: when I appear the people hang. A few lines down (“And when I walked my feet were bound / On revolution.. . .”) the pause as the line breaks is significant again, a reminder of the oppressive conditions that led to the urge for a revolutionary break with the past – it wasn't just the colonial exploitation of China that caused rebellion, it was the traditional culture of China as well (early on, Mao tells us “We cried ‘Long Live the Ancestors!’ / Once, ‘It’s Long Live the Living!’ now”).
An interesting thing about finally seeing this work staged is noticing the increasing presence of Mme Mao during Act 2, as she guides the ballet and its audience and finally explodes in her fierce aria. Hye Jung Lee is astounding in the role; a tiny, intense young woman, her rich voice soars through her showstopper number without any strain or harshness; there’s a warm sultry undercurrent to her voice that reminds you that Chiang Ch’ing was a showgirl before she became Mme Mao.
The second-act ballet, a version of Red Brigade of Women, has always been one of my favorite parts of the opera. I know it’s supposed to be kitschy and clichéd, but it’s also thrilling and effective, with its mash-up of James Bond saxophones and sweeping Wagnerian strings: there’s a reason propaganda and Hollywood films take the form they take. I would maybe have toned down a bit the slobbering of the Kissinger character (Patrick Carfizzi), but it's suitable to the tone; this anti-imperialist story seems like a very pointed entertainment directed at the visiting Americans. After the Houston premiere I read several reviews that were completely baffled by the goings-on in the ballet, particularly when the Nixons, moved by the plight of the abused young peasant woman, insert themselves into the action. I was surprised that anyone was surprised. As soon as I heard about it I thought it was a brilliant idea: the China summit was itself an act of theater; Mao and Nixon and company were all playing roles that were reported (and their images created) according to set patterns: there’s theater, and politics that is enacted as theater, and “reality” that may or may not be real, and we’re watching all this recreated on stage – part of the idea’s brilliance was that it was so obvious to point out these ambiguities by blurring the sometimes arbitrary line between what is seen as theater and what is seen as real. (Short version: hadn’t any of these people seen Hamlet?)
I shouldn’t slight the men: Brian Mulligan is commanding as Nixon, dominating the stage immediately with his excited and even boyish delivery of his introductory aria (“News has a kind of mystery”), which expresses not only Nixon’s self-conscious view of himself as a world-historical figure, but his sense of how his image is being perceived by the public through the filter created by the media (with which Nixon had a well-known obsession). The President, though trying to embody a conservative view of America emphasizing self-reliance and continuity and contented success, smiles nervously, trying to win the approval of these placid and implacable older revolutionaries with their riddling and ambiguous remarks. Simon O’Neill captures the vigor and ambition of the physically fading Mao, his stentorian vocal lines part of his self-presentation as the new and improved Confucius. Chen-Ye Yuan is a Chou En-lai of reserve and depth. The entire cast is praiseworthy. Really, the whole production is all so well done, with so many nice touches! For example, the way the opening chorus (“Soldiers of heaven hold the sky”) takes place behind a scrim until “the people are the heroes now,” when the scrim rises and for the first time we can see the people clearly; or the lovely way Pat Nixon extends both arms out to her sides and slowly pivots as she sings her visionary Act 2 aria (“This is prophetic”).
One daring structural feature of the opera is the third act; it’s a tribute to what Adams, Goodman, and Sellars achieved that despite its lack of the big set-pieces of the first two acts and despite coming at the end of a long evening (the performance lasts three and a half hours) and despite coming after Mme Mao's searing barn-burner of an aria, it seems like the perfect ending, the right change in tone and mood and focus. We move away from the banquet halls and official tours and theatrical presentations and we hear fragmentary thoughts, and conversations, spoken or murmured but perhaps not meant to be heard. Nixon, the representative of officially optimistic America, dwells on his days in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War, thinking of death. Nixon and Pat dreamily dance, and so do Mao Tse-tung and his wife. Chou En-lai looks back in time and has no answers. His final words end the opera: “Outside this room the chill of grace / Lies heavy on the morning grass.” It’s one of those seemingly casual observations of the natural world, precise yet universal, typical of traditional Chinese poetry, evoking ambiguous and endlessly troubling, or calming, implications. (I wonder if I’m reading too much into the lines to hear an echoing reference to Whitman’s ultimately American leaves of grass, uniting both cultures in a single image?) The lines are both optimistic (the grace and the fresh grass) and cautionary (grace is chilly, and lies heavy; and there’s the usual “morning” / “mourning” homonym). The music is strangely calm and low as it ends.
This opera plays (and connects) with operatic history and conventions throughout just as much as with what we might call "history history." (The toasts echo the traditional drinking songs, there's a Queen-of-the-Night-style aria of rage and revenge, the three Chinese women translators recall the Queen of the Night's trio of attendants, there's a ballet, the personal and political intersect in a Verdian manner, the airplane-landing music in Act 1 evokes the pompous grandeur of the entry of the gods into Valhalla, Act 1 ends with one of those tumultuous scenes familiar from Rossini and company of everyone singing different things at once. . . .) It still reads and is perceived as "new", yet if you saw Turandot in 1950 you would be seeing something closer in time to its premiere than we are to the premiere of Nixon in China. The world has moved on since then, for better and worse. It’s an odd coincidence that this season opened and closed with operas on “contemporary” American history: first the puerile inanities of Heart of a Soldier and then the triumphant Nixon in China, a work both theatrically exciting and powerfully subtle. (I'm hoping the decline in depth and quality and the rise in unthinking militaristic jingoism from Nixon in China to Heart of a Soldier is merely a coincidence and not a sign of American cultural decline.) The music of Nixon in China clearly springs from the minimalist movement, but is already moving beyond it; though Adams’s music has become even richer since, this score still sounds fresh; you don’t listen to it thinking, oh, yeah, remember when everyone used all those arpeggios?; instead, you think I am going to have this music in my mind for weeks now. I’m happy to have it there.