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Critics review Wortham, `Nixon' opera


SAT 10/24/1987 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section Houston, Page 1, 2 STAR Edition

"Nixon in China's" world premiere pleased its composer, but the opera drew mixed responses from visiting music critics.

John Adams, composer of the opera premiered by Houston Grand Opera, told members of the Music Critics Association Friday that "the performance pretty fairly represented what I had in mind - which is quite extraordinary, given the opera world."

The MCA, an association of North American classical music critics, is holding its annual meeting in Houston in conjunction with HGO's first full repertory weekend in the Wortham Theater Center. The convention began Thursday with the world premiere of "Nixon in China."

Adams noted that most of his recent music, written for the symphonic world, had been presented "under the most stressful circumstances and without adequate preparation."

In comparison, he said, "Nixon in China was totally memorized, totally choreographed, 100 percent staged by Aug. 19." He said he understands that kind of preparation not to be the case in the opera world in general.

"Much of this was due to Houston Grand Opera, which allowed us artists to make the best case on opening night."

Peter Sellars, the stage director of "Nixon in China," predicted the work would have "a long life, because it's a fantastic piece." The production is scheduled for performances in Brooklyn; Washington, D.C.; and the Netherlands.

Adams said that for him the piece is 99 percent complete, except for some changes in the orchestration. Sellars said the staging will be refined as the performances continue. Additional performances of " Nixon in China" are at 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; as well as Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, 5 and 7.

When quizzed closely about the use of contact microphones for the singers, both Adams and Sellars defended that choice. The microphones were used, rather than Surtitles, to enhance intelligibility.

"I'm perfectly happy with the results last night," said Adams. Surtitles would not have served the text by Alice Goodman, he said. The other choice would be to move into a smaller house, he said, and he was reluctant to reduce the size and resources of the orchestra, which such a move would necessitate.

Both challenged the necessity that all the text should be fully understood on the first hearing.

"If you get 50 to 60 percent of the text on the first try, that's terrific," said Adams. "Opera is a form of art. It's not Broadway. It's not entertainment. It invites a constant revisiting to the score" to restudy the work, he said.

Sellars said he was reminded of a world-famous teacher at Harvard, who asserted that "if you're reading Tolstoy for the first time and you understand 30 percent, that's getting a lot."

When asked if former President Nixon had been invited to the premiere, HGO general director David Gockley said the opera tried "every avenue open to us" to get him to attend. The libretto was sent early on, Gockley said.

"Ultimately the answer came from him, or people close to him, that it was surgery and a publication deadline that prevent him from coming at this particular moment." Nixon's wife, Pat, has been ill, Gockley said. The general director said he didn't know whether Nixon was waiting to evaluate the response before deciding to see a performance at a later time.

Visiting critics were more willing to evaluate the Wortham Theater Center than the opera, though several declined to make comment at all.

James Wierzbicki of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said, "The building is what I'd expect to find in Houston," which he called the capital of post-modern architecture. He compared the Wortham's grand foyer to New York's Grand Central Station, "except for the mauves, peaches and fuchsias. This building is very striking."

He found the opera to be "more interesting than good... a novelty, not much more."

Contrastingly, Allan Ulrich of the San Francisco Examiner said that "Nixon in China" may be "one of the most important operas of the decade." He found the hall to be "very comfortable," although he is waiting to hear a production in the Wortham's Brown Theater without amplified voices. He also liked the rake of the floor on the Brown's orchestra level. "Punk hairdos that would have blotted my vision out in the past didn't disturb me."

William Littler of the Toronto Star said, "If this is Houston - the part that MCA is able to see - why would anyone live in Dallas?" He, too, is waiting to see another opera before evaluating the hall's acoustics. He did find the theater to be "a very comfortable environment. It has that aspect of welcoming the audience."

Chronicle Fine Arts Editor Ann Holmes, in her review, which ran in the paper's later editions Friday, called the work "uneven."

"The opera is often startling in its unexpected mix of stately tableaux with human characterization of what would seem lofty Chinese and American diplomats at a significant moment in time," Holmes wrote. "It is frequently funny in its dialogue and in its visual jokes. It is also disjunct - though not detrimentally - with its formalistic ceremonial first act and its extremely impressionistic later acts...

"The opera is never expectable, and is often fascinating. But with this comes the frustrating fact that the audience often loses a portion of the lyrics, as they are complex; and though the singers' diction is very clear and forthright, the words don't fly from the stage...

"Nixon in China is a dazzling example of new music theater from a serious and probing team willing to try something different. They have blended elements of the classic form with new insights and a certain amount of theatrical free fall."

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