Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nixon in China in Vancouver . . .

This photo by Tim Matheson arrived in this morning's e-mail from The Vancouver Opera Association along with quotations from the various glowing reviews of Saturday's performance.
Time to add my own voice to that chorus: If you're in Vancouver, there are three performances left -- go now, see if you can book a ticket!!

I will admit that not all opera lovers fall for John Adams' music -- we had a lively conversation during the second intermission with another couple, very knowledgeable about opera, long-time subscribers to VOA, and the beautifully-tuxedoed (perfectly-tied lively-printed bow tie adding a pop of colour) male half argued vehemently against it -- he hated it, wanted to leave, but was staying in deference to his wife who loved it. As with most contemporary "art" music, melody is not what you come away with, yet I'm hearing music in my head days later -- the spectacularly-sopranoed intervals of Madame Mao's repetition of "the bo-ook" as she thrusts forth that little red volume, the big band dance fragments, Henry Kissinger's porno-gourmand lyrics (yes, really!). I would happily listen to the score again, even without all the other elements that bring opera to life, just to get another chance to pay attention to the orchestra -- VOA's did a stellar job Saturday night.

Wonderful casting, as well -- something you don't always say about opera where the voice might be perfect but the physicality less so. Nixon, played by Richard Orth, is astonishingly (and comically) convincing, as is Henry Kissinger (Thomas Hammons). Madame Mao (Tracy Dahl) terrifies in her petite but ferocious intensity and while I don't have a memory bank of Pat Nixon (Sally Dibblee) images for comparison, she certainly captures the era's political wives while bringing out another side of her husband.

I think what struck me most with this opera was the emphasis on audio-visual technology which was really beginning to shrink the world around the time of Nixon's 1972 visit to China. The moon landing was not far behind us and satellite technology meant we didn't have to wait for images of far-off events. Consequently, as Nixon's posing (beautifully parodied in Adams's opera) reminds us, politicians were more aware than ever of history's eye on them. In case the point wasn't clear enough through Nixon's posing, the opera featured camera crews with their film equipment and sound-recording devices as well as journalists jotting copious notes at every utterance. As well, the main actors moved across the stage against backdrops of their projected images (above is an example) either Warhol-like silkscreened ones or actual film projections taken from earlier in the show. Simulacra and stage actor and photographs of the actual historic personages repeated the message that we live in a visually-mediated world. So that while I might be happy enough listening to the score at home, this is an opera which really demands all the resources of the stage -- sight and sound together -- to work.

As you can see from the photo above, visuality is emphasized not only through audio-visual technology, but through good old-fashioned technologies of costume and stage set -- altho' as you can also see, there's not much old-fashioned about these costumes and set. Red, black-and-white, khaki all worked to evoke China -- both in its ancient aesthetic and in the rigors of the Cultural Revolution. Very effective and also powerfully gorgeous. Somehow minimalist-clean yet sumptuous at the same time. Very satisfying

****Have to add: The librettist, American poet Alice Goodman deserves mention -- obviously, the libretto structures everything else, bringing out characters, creating moods -- one particularly striking sequence with a repeated chant which captures the Cultural Revolution.
Also, an interesting detail is that the opera began from an idea of Peter Sellers who approached Adams.
The gorgeous ballet which unfolded onstage as part of the presentation put on for the President and his wife reminded me that I haven't been to ballet for ages -- so exquisite, and I must make it a goal to see more.
And finally, I must take time to applaud the VOA for sticking to its goal of bringing this opera to Canada despite the tough economic times that hit since the original commitment was made. The cultural leaders who make sure that we have great art not only of the past but also renewed by contemporary outlooks and styles and events deserve our appreciation.****

Interesting that so many who see this opera will only know Nixon through movies or through film clips -- mainly, of course, focussing on the "Tricky Dicky" of Watergate fame. But I'd read reviews of historian Margaret MacMillan's Nixon in China and had some idea that his position in history was being re-assessed. I'm putting the book on my summer reading list, but I know once it's in the house I'll have to read fast or guard it carefullly -- Pater, who remembers images from that week, is keen to revisit the period as well. And my friend and neighbour, Carol (and her husband Mike), also at Saturday's performance, is also beginning to read around the subject -- I see a dinner on the deck discussing Nixon in China this summer. All thanks to the VOA!

What about you? Have you seen the opera? Heard the score? Or do you remember images of that trip? Or changing awareness of China during the 70s? If you're in Vancouver, do consider seeing the opera to revisit a fascinating historical event.