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Gramophone The Archive

October 1988 - page                        
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David Patrick Stearns TAMES MADDALENA'S charac terization of Richard Nixon in the John Adams opera, Nixon in China, has turned the US's most controversial, living President into one of the music world's most controversial opera characters.
The October premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, and subsequent December run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, left audiences and critics sharply divided. The problem was not the difficulty of accepting a singing Nixon (even though the real Nixon could barely play the piano). The music was either considered so insubstantial as to be boring or so entrancing as to be unforgettable.
Those who liked it seemed to love it enough to plan a journey to Washington, DC in March, when it was performed again at the Kennedy Center.
Nonesuch Records didn't plan to record the work, but when it became clear that this was the hottest opera event of the year, the label booked time in RCA's Studio A just before Christmas and ambitiously announced a March release date. Though this is an extraordinarily quick dissemination for any contemporary opera, it isn't by Adams's standards. The fox-trot-flavoured ballet se quence from the opera, The Chairman Dances (which was subsequently dropped from the final score) was premiered separately in early 1986, out on record by mid 1987 and soon scheduled for performances by a half dozen American orchestras. His Harmonielehre is making the rounds with America's major orchestras with similar swiftness. The simple explanation is that Adams's music is melodic, harmonically rich and full of subtle popular music influences to which Americans can easily respond.
Apart from the illness of Carolann Page (who plays Mrs Nixon and had to dub her parts in later), the sessions went quite smoothly, no doubt because the opera was being brought to life by longtime friends of Adams's music, including conductor Edo de Waart who has championed and recorded Adams's work since his days as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.
Indeed, there seems to be a sense of ownership among the opera's champions. After years of struggling to understand the foreign world of European opera, Americans have a major operatic work that reflects their lives (after all, who is more American than Nixon?) and their musical vernacular, perhaps for the first time since Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
The idea originated four years ago with Peter Sellars (the opera's stage director), who had just read Nixon's memoirs and decided that the' exPresident—and his 1972 visit to China—would make a fine modern counterpart to the sort of mythic, antique figures that Handel and Mozart used in their operas. The main difference was that opera composers have seldom portrayed stillliving people, and Adams needed some convincing. Subsequently, he was also baffled (but later captivated) by the libretto of Alice Goodman. Obviously, the subject matter demanded a redefinition of opera, a task that came naturally to Adams considering that he doesn't care for conventional opera at all.
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"During Nixon's visit to China, nobody was killed, nobody fell in love, nobody drank poison and nobody was even betrayed", said Adams. "What we've done is to use the very public events, such as the arrival of the airplane on the field or the big banquet scenes as a backdrop for an emerging human drama. I don't think the opera has a vector, as in Verdi, but where there's been a crisis in the opera, it's been resolved. It's all dreamlike, all operating on a symbolic level."
He declined to explain what the symbolism might be, and like many intuitive artists he seemed not entirely sure what he had wrought. When asked if the Nixons experience some sort of spiritual transformation during the course of the opera, something like Pamina and Tamino in The Magic Flute, he vaguely shook his head. "What we see in the last act is that they're mortal human beings, frail and vulnerable."
Though Henry Kissinger was played mostly for laughs, Nixon turned out to be a fairly complex character. "I didn't want to impersonate him. I wanted to portray him as a character, without caricature", said Maddalena who, aged 33, was never old enough to vote for the real Nixon. "I wanted to avoid his familiar victory gestures. I really like the last scene, when he is remembering his idealistic youth in the Second World War. His men had a wonderful respect for him, and then he went into politics and people started hating him."
Adams characterized Nixon's nostalgia with musical echoes of the bigband era, which is also something the composer grew up with. In fact, the orchestration calls for an entire saxophone section, but that's not the only example of pop music influence in the opera. "Sometimes everything stays the same but the weight of the beat changes—and that's closer to pop music than classical", said de Waart. "You can't say this is purely minimalist."
(see review on page 670)

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