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`Nixon in China'/HGO presents world premiere of unusual opera

ANN HOLMES, Houston Chronicle Fine Arts Editor Staff

SUN 10/18/1987 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section Zest, Page 15, 2 STAR Edition

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EVEN as the Houston Grand Opera is luring audiences with a stunning production of Verdi's "Aida" and a kicky, upstart version of Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio," the most eagerly awaited new American opera in decades - or ever - is in the oven at Wortham Theater: the Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of John Adams' " Nixon in China."

The work will open Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on the Brown Stage in the new Wortham Theater Center and will have seven performances through Nov. 7. All three HGO operas will be visible in rotating repertory on several occasions during this fall opera semester - the first for the opera as it opens its 33rd season with a cast of young American singers.

If the idea of a Republican president on a state visit seems an odd subject for an opera, Peter Sellars, the controversial 29-year-old genius who dreamed it up, sees it as "a quite thrilling and theatrical concept." It is the work of a blue-ribbon creative team, including Sellars, composer John Adams and poet-librettist Alice Goodman. The singers will be heard and seen as Richard and Pat Nixon, Chou En-lai, Mao Tse-tung, Madame Mao, Henry Kissinger and a trio of secretaries to Mao.

There will be special movement and dance choreographed by outstanding contemporary choreography Mark Morris, and the production has been in the hands of set designer Adrianne Lobel, costume designer Dunya Ramicova and lighting designer Jim Ingalls, all of whom Sellars extols as leading artists of new production techniques and styles.

Though his name suggests the second president of the United States, composer Adams is no kin and does not claim to be a White House watcher. Nor does Sellars, who came upon the idea for the piece having just read Kissinger's "White House Years". He fixed upon the idea that Nixon's visit to China in 1972 - with its remarkable results - was a mythic occasion etched into the conscious or subconcious realizations of many contemporary Americans.

Just out of Harvard, where he startled fellow students and faculty with a series of plays and shortened "Ring" operas, Sellars was in New Hampshire where he was "working on a lot of Chinese stuff, because a lot of my life was bound up with the Orient. My mother lived in Japan for four years, and Asia was very much on my mind. I was going to stage one of Madame Mao's ideologically correct proletarian ballets at La Mama, for my New York debut. But then I decided the Cultural Revolution was just too scary. People had been killed, had lost their fingers. I felt I could not touch that material."

Sellars was reading about Mao while staging Haydn's "Armida" and had set it in Vietnam, as a story of love vs. duty, a case of giving soldiers drugs. "It was a sort of an hallucinogenic battlefield experience. I was thinking, `Why does one have to go to an 18th-century opera to talk about these (political) things? Why not talk of them in our own language in terms of words and music?"'

"Nixon in China" just arose in that kind of climate. "For three years, all I had was the title. There's something in that phrase - it generates some spark, some odd feeling, slightly surreal."

Sellars sees that encounter of Mao and Nixon as having much significance for the next 50 years. "In our country, a whole wave of our culture came from Europe, and that is now over, and I think the next 200 years are going see an influence from the other direction. The Japanese have already turned over our car manufacturing (concepts) and now if you can get to Detroit, that's cutting to the heart of America."

Sellars asked Adams if he would be willing to work on a opera on the subject of Nixon in China. Adams, who lives in California, shrugged it off. Then six months later, he telephoned Sellars and asked if he was serious. Thus it began and they brought in Alice Goodman, a poet whom Sellars had admired at Harvard.

"We all did homework. We didn't know where we would end up, but we went along and worked on the plots and the scenes jointly."

Research assistant Ruth Mieskuc (whose family lives in Houston) did reserch about China and the historic visit of the American president and provided reams of material for Goodman. She went off and wrote her poetry - it's in iambic pentameter - and sent it to Adams. "Often we three got together," Sellars said. But then when he became busy as the head of the theater program at the Kennedy Center (from which he is now released), Goodman and Adams worked things out together.

"There were some cuts in the libretto as we went along, and John made some cuts in the score," but not many.

He explained that Adams' "The Chairman Dances," now a separate work which has had a phenomenal record sale, was not really trimmed from the opera, despite the popular belief that it was. "It was really just an early sketch for other work in the opera, and it stands alone - a fabulous little piece - a miniature symphony. The BBC is going to do a whole program about it."

From the director's point of view, "Nixon in China" builds to a touching climax. "The first act is very large and formal, big set-ups. It's just a house on fire. It's fabulous! But then the second act develops in directions that you could never have guessed, and the end - the third act - has Alice's most powerful poetic writing, and John responds accordingly. He moves musically in this work to a whole new place. This is a real musical breakthrough. It's like a return to Verdi - tuneful and yet with high tension, gripping and deceptively simple."

Sellars believes the last act is "going to be the one understood the least in the theater, because you can't tell what the plot is any longer and everything goes off onto a level that seems surreal. But I must say, it goes to a depth of emotion you can't miss."

Adams, now 40, continues to pop into music news. Some say he's the hottest young composer in the nation today, and some continue to incorrectly categorize him with such minimalist composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

A resident of San Francisco, who wears his graying hair parted in the middle and falling like the swaths of a curtain over his forehead, Adams, like the others, writes music with a great emphasis on consonance and on a steady beat; but he has moved out into a more expressive music that utilizes many folk idioms.

Adams insists that music to be good doesn't have to be complex, unpleasant or inaccessible. In fact, he once said that "the composer and the performer may sweat but that the listener shouldn't have to." He believes that whereas earlier in the century the composer became a prophet, scorning the idea of composing for an audience. "But I compose for myself and it just happens that my likes and dislikes happen to be more in synch with those of the average concert audience."

In workshop sessions of "Nixon in China," at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last November and California last May, in which the press was admitted, opinions apparently split on the work's virtues. But only now has the orchestration been brought together with the vocal lines and the production effects.

The opera opens with the arrival of the president's plane at the Beijing airport (it was called Peking at that time), where the Nixons step out to be greeted by Chou En-lai.

The second scene occurs in Chairman Mao's study when Nixon and the philosophical Mao engage in discussions and high-level duets. Mao is backed up by three secretaries who sing (one true contralto and two mezzos). The first act closes with a large banquet and the usual toasts hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall of the People. Act II finds Pat Nixon being shown around Beijing and the first family attending a masque at the opera, titled "The Red Detachment of Women", a dance element of the work.

In diplomatic response, Act Three becomes another grand banquet, again in the Great Hall, this time with the Nixons as hosts, and with reminiscences from Chairman and Madame Mao and the Nixons. In the final scene of Act Three, called Last Night in Beijing, the Maos continue to dance, as the Nixons are seen boarding their plane to leave.

Is the Nixon visit a caricature? The creators of it insist that it isn't. Adams once said the commissioners of the work (the Houston Grand Opera, Kennedy Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music) might have once feared this would a hatchet job. "I've come to know a different Nixon," Adams said. "We've seen him satirized so much people may expect the usual canards and cliches. But I think by the end of Act II they'll come to share a tremendous empathy with this character."

Indeed there are cliches, homilies one after the next dotting Goodman's libretto - done on purpose, to draw attention to the fact of plain human beings in an extraordinary, history-making situation. Goodman is herself a poet now working at Cambridge, England, and her libretto is a lively mix of small witty glints and eloquent statements. Much of Nixon's solo is taken from his actual speech, but Goodman has created the speech of Chou En-lai.

Sellars says that despite the fact that there is no traditional plot line or developed conflict, he has staged some of the piece as a big public ceremonial occasion (the first act) and "because people aren't running around, you have the sense you really are attending such an occasion."

The libretto will be sung in English, and he isn't worried that people will miss any of the words. "I don't want to reduce it to literalism (by use of Surtitles); people can take it in as it washes over them." In the second act the opera moves into deeper dramatic matters and is enlivened with Mark Morris' dances. Of the choreographger, Sellars says, "I think he's the new Balanchine - a burst of talent the dance world hasn't seen since Balanchine."

John DeMain, the Houston Grand Opera's music director, is conducting, but all the production artists and all nine cast members will be making their HGO debuts here. Some of the singers such as James Maddalena, who sings Nixon, and Sanford Sylvan (Chou En-lai) are long-time Sellars friends who have worked in his other productions. Among the others are Carolann Page as Pat Nixon, John Duykers as Mao, Trudy Ellen Craney as Madame Mao and Thomas Hammons as Kissinger. The orchestra will have 33 musicians, a chorus of 16, 10 dancers and 28 supers.

"Nixon in China" will be taped for later national broadcast in the spring via Public Broadcasting station WNET in New York and Houston's Channel 8. For ticket information, call 546-0246.

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