Nixon in China

Indulgent as this blog may be with solitary insights, its informal aim has been to stick to the Washington scene, to match the implication of this increasingly comical title “DC Arts Beat” (nowadays manifesting the tempo of a dirge).  Yet I’m anxious to break ranks here by invitation of this wonderful rhymed couplet that typifies the masterful poetry of Alice Goodman’s libretto for Nixon in China:

This air agrees with me
Wish we could send some to D.C.

The text, which coincides with the feeling I get every time (these days almost monthly) I visit New York City, is for Richard Nixon after he steps off a staircase that descends from a campy setpiece drop depicting Air Force One.  He has landed in China for his historic visit of 1972, but for the past couple of weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House, he actually has been tenor James Maddalena reprising a role he created almost a quarter century ago.

Among other questions we ask of contemporary opera – quite often, “where is the damned melody?” – there is a prescient one after the test of time, to ask whether a work deserves a place in the so-called operatic canon of company repertoires.  Mind you, most premieres never get a subsequent run, especially after decades of wide neglect.  The reasons for this range from artistic leadership (lately reversed in Peter Gelb’s commitment to operas by living composers, not-so-much-here), to outright rejection.  Much of the latter has been deserved, against the pens of “boomers” who had graduated from the Second Viennese School of tone-row terrorists dominating conservatories for decades and only recently begun to be outdated by tonal successors.  If you care to think about how punk rock gave the middle finger to flower children, imagine that Minimalism as an artistic movement similarly flamed against the structural fraud of its forebears with punishing simplicity.  Two founders from that movement have earned permanence:  Philip Glass and John Adams.  Both are being revived at America’s opera mecca, the Met, some decades after their emergences:  respectively, in Satyagraha and Nixon in China.

As we know from his recent Washington residency, John Adams falls into that great tradition of master composers doubling as maestro conductors.  Saturday evening, I took pilgrimage to New York for this premiere of Nixon in China upon the Met stage, with Adams at the podium.  I had experienced the birth of this work over two decades ago as a relative kid in Los Angeles, hearing fellow surf punk Kent Nagano conduct the original production in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  It left an immediate and overwhelming impression back then:  it dared to be a work of intellectual tableaux on recent events, within an art form that typically finds us suppressing giggles during, say, Rigoletto when that almost-dead daughter revives from her bodybag for one last aria and sings to the back row of the rafters.  Nixon in China also mashed up the patent repetitive style of Philip Glass’ familiar Minimalism/Maximalism with a kind of nostalgic nod to mid-century Big Band, a recurrent style in Adams that he has called his “trickster persona.”  Between those poles, though, the opera is solidly classical in creds:  Adams, surpassing the skills of his Minimalist contemporaries who thrived best in self-serving chamber ensembles, always possessed the Western skill of a master orchestrator, on the level that we know well of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov to Mussorgsky.  (One fine example is Adams' orchestration of American folk songs by Charles Ives.)  Indeed, a pinnacle musical moment arises from Nixon's ballet-within-the-opera, after a passing thunderstorm, that anyone familiar with the score anticipates for its epic beauty.  Around all the surrounding trickster Minimalism, one swears that Wagner’s spirit is haunting the score.  While I'm guilty here of hyperbole, it is absolutely defensible to suggest that this moment is among the greatest in 20th Century opera – yet, at the same time, it is played for laughs.  Despite being a political meditation injected with such smart debate, Nixon is at heart a hoot of an opera.  Saturday, it seemed that some of the humor was lost on the audience, but when Chou En-lai proposes a toast with eloquent poetic ruminations – only to be met with Tricky Dick saying in turn, “Never have I so enjoyed a dinner…outside America!” – we are brought to the same embarrassed laughter as recently we found in our 41st President.

Indeed, there is a masterful scene early in the opera that for me had always stood above the rest, exemplifying the way that Nixon manages to arouse good comedy and drama out of a physically static philosophical debate.  Seated in front of a not ironically minimalist bookshelf setpiece, Nixon and Mao Tse-tung debate Capitalism against Communism to the musical accompaniment of faux-clumsy, persistent syncopation, and a sort of Greek/Communist chorus in Mao’s trio of assistants.

Founders come first
Then the profiteers.

It is during this scene that anyone experiencing this quarter-century revival begins to think about the China we thought we knew, and now the presumed dominance of Capitalist China that awaits us.

All said, for its surprising success as a work of theatre, Nixon always suffered a bit during its latter half.  There is a ballet-within-the-opera, brilliantly choreographed by Mark Morris, that nears incomprehensibility when a horny Henry Kissinger camps it up, inciting soldiers to whip a peasant girl to death.  Literally (I believe), audiences reach a point when they are forced to ask, “What the hell is going on?”  (I had pondered a few months ago that the film Mao's Last Dancer smartly depicted this agit-prop art form in an ironically beautiful fulfillment of Madame Mao's perverse vision.)  And then there is the final Act III, which contrasts heavily against the preceding political theatre with its intimate and theatricalistic juxtaposition of the principals settling into bed and ruminating what’s-the-point-of-it-all.  Much of this is Peter Sellars’ doing, an offstage eccentric evangelist for the arts and, less successfully on the job, a scenarist who has a reputation for quite honestly ruining good pieces.  Adams’ subsequent opera The Death of Klinghoffer is a fine example, where the score and narrative were ever more brilliant, but Sellars staged it using puzzlingly dense scaffolding that was more Hollywood Squares than ambitious experimental theatre.  Indeed, documentary filmmaker Penny Woolcock transformed Klinghoffer through her masterful film version; and for Adams’ next opera Doctor Atomic, she was called upon to get it right for the Met debut after Sellars did his thing for the world premiere in San Francisco.

The larger fact, though, is that Nixon in China represents the apex of the operatic repertory from the latter half of the 20th Century.  Rather like the surprising irony of Nixon’s legacy itself, the opera has aged well.  Importantly, too, Nixon functions as an artfully historical record of two countries meeting, believed now to be vying for dominance through ever-increasing battles of political, financial and intellectual capital.  And musically, Nixon represents a precious moment in the development of Adams' idiomatic style, when he was a deliberate Minimalist composer pushing that form's infant boundaries with distinctly American assimilation less obvious than the workings of forebears like Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein.  There was a moment that I'll never forget, at the end of Act II's raucous wail, "I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung," when Adams led the orchestra into his thunderous cadence and confronted the ensuing aural decay with an expression of sheer awe at what he had created.  Upon this, the lights faded into darkness – and that is an image, of this great artist humbled by his art, burned into my memory forever.

"I Am Old and Cannot Sleep" (Russell Braun as Chou En-lai), that concludes the opera