Nixon in China: The Opera

8232John Adams’ Nixon in China has attained the status of modern classic since its premiere in 1987, but the opera is not performed frequently and is still unfamiliar to many audiences. Nonetheless there is great curiosity about the piece, as I discovered when I began work on the Spotlight program; I think I’ve gotten more questions about this opera than any other I’ve documented.

In some respects it’s easiest to begin a discussion of Nixon in China by listing what it is not:

• It’s not a dry history lesson;
• It’s not a political rant;
• It’s neither a satire nor a farce;
• It’s not unmelodic or atonal;
• It’s not strictly “minimalist” (though it certainly has elements of that style).

So…what is it? I’m not an historian, political scientist, or musicologist (and I don’t play one on TV), but in the course of shooting rehearsals and talking to the cast & production staff I’ve made a few observations.

I was already somewhat familiar with the opera in its original incarnation as directed by Peter Sellars, but this production is a fresh conception (i.e., not a re-mount) directed by James Robinson. The music and dramatic intent are the same, of course, but the new staging has some interesting features of its own. The settings are less representational and more abstract, and very colorful (I joke that it “needs more red”). The media coverage surrounding the event plays a more prominent role. There’s increased emphasis on movement, both literal (the ballet, ritualized gestures) and figurative (from exuberance to reflection). Robinson and his cast have also worked to highlight the abundant humor in the libretto. And, the piece has an expansive, “mock heroic” tone that is, dare I say it, a lot of fun.

“Fun.” Now there’s a word you don’t often hear associated with opera, particularly modern opera, yet it’s a vital component of this one. Adams and librettist Alice Goodman brought a sense of playfulness to Nixon in China, and that was reflected in the rehearsals. Of course it helps to have a director, conductor, choreographer and cast who are confident and attuned to the demands & nuances of the piece, and San Diego Opera assembled such a group. The participants seemed to be genuinely enjoying their work; I think that comes across in the Spotlight footage, and hopefully it will prove contagious for the audience.

Back to my original question: What is Nixon in China? I could say that it’s a dramatic comedy (or a comic drama), or it’s a stage spectacle, or it’s a postmodern character study; or just say it’s an evening’s entertainment and leave it at that. But I’m not the authority here – watch UCSD-TV’s San Diego OperaTalk and San Diego Opera Spotlight, then attend San Diego Opera’s Nixon in China and cultivate your own impressions. It will be time well spent.

Submitted by John Menier, Arts and Music Producer