Nixon’s in China, but I’m in Bogotá

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

Well, he was, and I am.

The title refers to the 1987 John Adams’ opera, “Nixon in China,” originally commissioned and presented by the Houston Grand Opera. I first saw the production during a PBS broadcast in 1988 (thereabouts; I’m not sure of the precise date).

I was mesmerized by it then, particularly the music, so when Cine Colombia in Bogotá announced a live HD transmission, I immediately bought a ticket. Cine Colombia is primarily a film distributor with a chain of state-of-the-art movie theaters in the country. The first two or three transmissions in Bogotá played in only one “room” of the high-end Andino Multiplex. Before the end of that first season, Cine Colombia could expand the broadcasts to two other theaters in Bogot’a plus one each in Cali and Medellín.
I mention this to reassure the doubters that there is indeed a strong audience for these broadcasts in Colombia. They are not a whim of a small elite.
But having said that, I confess to being disappointed with the very small turn-out for the live transmission on Wednesday, 16 February. However, the repeat performance (or “encore,” if you prefer) on Saturday, 19 Februrary, will probably have a full house.

“Nixon in China” is a long opera (four hours), but it moves swiftly. I agree with the “New York Times’ ” opera critic Anthony Tommasini regarding the historic moment chosen–Nixon before the scandals of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Viet Nam. Richard Nixon’s decision to “meet the enemy face-to-face” during the Cold War was both brilliant and common sensical statesmanship. The visit and meetings were documented extensively in books and magazine articles, as well as photographed and filmmed from start to finish. Even though the libretto was written by Alice Goodwin, the composer essentially set the music on the event.

And therein lies a doubt or a complaint or a suggestion–Would “Nixon in China” work better as a four-part symphony with chorus and soloists?

To being with, the music is overwhelming and enveloping. It smoothly combines diverse elements–60s Motown, Queen and Chinese music as well as idioms I don’t know with recognizable Western structure. Let me dissect that–the three women translators often function more like the Ronettes, the Vandellas or the Supremes rather than Ping-Pang-Pong in “Turandot.” This is subtly done and even matches producer Peter Sellars’ comment during an intermission, that “. . .this is an American opera. . .” Yes, it is, and as straightforward as Copeland’s “Billy the Kid” or the musical “Oklahoma!”

And about as subtle as a Kiss concert.

Therein lies my dilemma.

On the one hand is an opera in English by a contemporary American composer (who directed the Met orchestra on Wednesday night), concerning a 20th C. political event. In February 1972, when this meeting took place in Beijing, John Adams was 25 and I was 27. The encounter itself was designed mostly by Henry Kissinger as the herald of a bright future for our generation. That future seems to have arrived, but whether or not it’s bright is open to question, especially if you are an unemployed American.

But let’s stick to the opera, and my reservations about it.

As a story, “Nixon in China” functions in an interesting way. We already know who the primary characters are, so there are few arias to introduce them or explain their motives or interactions. The singers have a lot of leeway to create substance and Robert Brubaker as Mao Tse-tung does so with gusto. But in contrast, Russell Braun’s Chou En-lai remains so enigmatic he verges on a caricature of himself.

James Maddalena’s Nixon is free of the tics and eccentricities for which the ex-president became known. At the same time, however, Maddalena’s Nixon becomes at least as sympathetic as Frank Langella’s in the film “Frost/Nixon.” At one point, I began to fantasize about Langella singing this role.

But hey, it’s an idle thought.

Kelly Janis’s Pat Nixon was visually a dead ringer for the original First Lady. And yet, she has not memorable scenes nor arias. Her moments of reminiscence are tissue paper ballads, and frankly, that undermines the opera. The original Mrs. Nixon had been a school teacher who married a Quaker she loved, had two daughters with him and found herself eventually elevated to First Lady, wife of the most powerful man in Western civilization. Why does she have no moment of asking, “Gee, how did I get here? How did this happen?”
And if she did have those moments in the opera, they were so skillfully interwoven into the music and action that I missed them completely.

Mrs. Nixon is an appendage, which was acceptable in that historical period, but not in a contemporary opera. What Kelly Janis does sing is weghtless and forgettable. How very unimaginative.

The most underused of all, however, is Kathleen Kim, a diminutive but powerful coloratura soprano. I saw her as “Olympia” in last season’s Met broadcast of “Tales of Hoffman,” and thought she was wonderful. Her high notes are clear and sure, and thrilling to hear.

All that gets wasted in her dramatic aria, “I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung.” The real wife, Chiang Ching, was a former actress, very ambitious, cutthroat, scheming, manipoulative, not well-educated and lower class. “Submissive” is not an applicable adjective.

Kathleen Kim rolls up all these negative aspects into one explosive little package, but spends most of her time on stage in silent pantomime. What is memorable is Ms. Kim’s voice, because otherwise, Madonna or Britney Spears could have acted the part.

During interviews with these singers between the acts, most of them had an alarmingly standard answer when asked how they created their respective characters. They first said they had studied the original person, reading available biographies and historical documents. But then, as if in chorus, each said he/she had discovered “many layers” in the character which he/she tried to bring to the performance.

I winced.

I got the impression that these highly-regarded singers believed that the historical persons they incarnate on a stage are just cardboard inventions having no relevance either to themselves or to the public. This is not necessarily an American trait, but it does make me wonder about the overall cultural level of the singers. I expected a little more substance here, but ended up with Facebook profiles.

This brings me back to my initial gut reaction–this is definitely an American opera, but not exactly in the best sense. I was overwhelmed by the surface–the big, fast-paced, shifting music; the visual accuracy with clothes and hairstyles; the “Oh My!” quality of dealing with a relatively contemporary event, one that is important in American history.

But there was no uplift. I was not moved by either the voices or the characterizations. There was no after-glow.

Instead, I got the feeling I’d just been enveloped in the world’s biggest piece of pink cotton candy. It was alluring and enticing and promising, but there was nothing to bite except air and sugar.

Sort of like the jokes on Chinese take-out.

I’d like to give this post an upbeat, classy, Anthony Tommasini-style ending, but I can’t. Instead, I’ll give it an American Bandstand-style ending:
DICK CLARK: So, Phil Donagrandi, what kind of rating do you give John Adams’ new platter?
P. DONAGRANDI (in a haunting South Philly tenor accent): Gee, Dick, I don’ know. It’s gotta good beat an’ you c’n dance to it, I mean, in some parts, but the words are. . .
ah. . . yeah, it’s feh dancin’. . . I give it a’ eight, Dick.

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

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