Richard Nixon, Opera Superstar

‘Nixon in China,’ once derided as ‘a novelty item,’ has turned out to be a modern classic

Richard Nixon, Opera Superstar

Photography Tim Matheson

Most modern operas get performed and then forgotten—but not Nixon in China. This treatment of president Richard Nixon’s famous meeting with Mao Tse-tung, composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Adams and written by Alice Goodman, wasn’t performed in North America for almost two decades after its 1987 premiere. But suddenly, everyone wants to do it. The Vancouver Opera gave the work its Canadian premiere last year, and in February, it will debut at both the Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera.

James Wright, Vancouver Opera’s general director, told Maclean’s that its production “sold more tickets than expected,” and it may rent its version to other companies. What was once dismissed as a “CNN opera” is doing better than CNN.

When director Peter Sellars came up with the idea for this opera in the ’80s, few people thought it would have that kind of staying power. Sellars, who will return to direct the Met’s production, said the piece was accused of being “a novelty item,” trying to “cash in” on the still-living Nixon. Wright says it was also politically controversial because Nixon “comes off relatively unscathed,” even sympathetic. If opera companies didn’t want to put it on when it was topical, why would they change their minds now that Nixon’s dead?

For one thing, an opera lives or dies based on the music, and Nixon In China is quite accessible. In the ’80s, Adams was part of a movement called “minimalism,” which built music out of hypnotic repetitive patterns. Today, Wright says, that’s no longer a movement; it’s “a sound that we hear all the time.” Now that it’s not radical, audiences can appreciate Adams’s imaginative rhythms and orchestration. And while many modern operas have unpleasant vocal writing, Adams’s roles sound good when sung well: Alexander Neef, general director of the COC, told Maclean’s that the parts in Nixon “are hard sings, but they’re rewarding.” If a tenor can get through the incredibly difficult part of Mao without cracking, he “can leave a mark and be successful.”

And while many modern operas pick subjects that aren’t very exciting—or worse, make exciting things boring—Nixon in China is full of spectacular theatrical effects. A show-stopping moment comes early in the opera, when a plane lands and Nixon emerges. “It elicits an amazing response from the audience,” Wright says, adding that when he saw a Colorado staging of the production the COC is using, “the audience just gasped and chuckled because it looked like Nixon.” Audiences are also grabbed by an act two scene where the Nixons sit through a propaganda ballet written by Madame Mao Tse-tung, and somehow find themselves participating in the ballet and trying to change the fates of its characters. With its combination of dance, costume design, politics and difficult singing, this finale is the kind of number that fuses different kinds of theatre into a powerful experience, the way 19th-century grand operas did—and the way most modern works don’t.

Not that Nixon is foolproof as a theatre piece. It’s been criticized for changing tone in the final act, eliminating plot and becoming what Wright calls an “introspective and reflective” series of monologues about the characters’ lives. This scene, he adds, “needs to be staged very carefully” to prevent anti-climax. And as a product of the ’80s, the work depends on video and stage technology that is now a bit dated, meaning that directors have to bring some effects up to date for a modern audience.

But if the passage of time has made Nixon less topical and cutting edge, that may bring it closer to the appeal of the classic operas that fans are used to seeing. Now that it’s not a novelty, it’s what Wright describes as “less about politics and more about five major characters and how they respond to the stresses brought on them by the trip.” That could also describe popular operas like Verdi’s Don Carlos, personal stories told against a backdrop of historical pageantry. “I don’t know if it was the intention of the creators,” Neef says, “but it makes historical figures tangible.” Even better, it lets a singer dress up as Henry Kissinger.

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