The Metropolitan Opera feed of free streaming performances celebrate American composers the week of July 4th Independence Day.
I was especially excited to get another look at John Adams’s Nixon in China, that we saw both via a production by the Canadian Opera Company and another production seen in the Metropolitan Opera series of High Definition broadcasts back in 2011. Although I recall being blown away by both, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of anyone producing Adams’s opera since that time. The Met presented two videos of Adams operas this week (Nixon as well as Dr Atomic). A quick look at operabase.com suggests that other American composers (Glass, Previn, Weill, Muhly, Floyd, Menotti, Heggie) are doing better in the years since. I recall the fuss over John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles when it appeared around 1980 with its clever references to other operas, but that work doesn’t seem to be on the radar these days. And while Thomas Hampson, host of the broadcast, lauded Nixon (the creation by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman) as the “most important opera of the last quarter century” (a view I share), opera companies seem to have forgotten it when programming their seasons.
What a powerful video this is. Much of the time we’re in close-ups that never compromise a performer, a brilliant starring cast of Russell Braun as Chou En-Lai, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon, Richard Paul Fink as Henry Kissinger, Robert Brubaker as Mao and Kathleen Kim as Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung). When we watch the overpowering drama of Madame Mao’s da capo aria that ends Act II (an excerpt from the production, available on youtube), much of the drama is in horrified reactions from Kelly & Maddalena (the Nixons), the robotic chorus and the dancers, especially soloists Haruno Yamazaki and Kanji Segawa.
Has anyone written anything as powerful or relevant since? I’ve watched the complete opera twice, have watched this shattering excerpt at least 7 times in the past few days, usually ending up in tears, sometimes sobbing,,, Be warned it’s powerful. I was prompted by Facebook, who reminded me of a status I posted in July 2011, an ironic phrase we hear early in the aria:
“When I appear the people hang…
When I appear the people hang upon my words.”
In 1987 when composer Adams and librettist Goodman collaborated with Director Peter Sellars to create the work, Nixon was largely a discredited former president, not forgotten but remembered for his corruption & his ignominious departure. We get a believably human portrait, that still seemed accurate in 2011 when this performance was made, and hasn’t been negated since.
What’s especially intriguing as of 2021 are changes in our understanding of China. Where we seemed to be in a place resembling friendship if not détente in 2011, as of 2021 America & China have been bristling at one another since the presidency of Donald Trump. The opening lines of the chorus gave me the shivers:
“The people are the heroes now
Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plow”.
In 1987, Adams & Goodman were creating a work of art that occasionally touches upon historical fact. Did the Chinese people (if we could imagine them all singing together in English) ever believe such things, or is this a Marxist / Maoist fantasy? The scene you see on video above –where the Nixons watch Madame Mao admonish dancers, spurring a group with Maoist dogma from the “little red book” of quotations from Chairman Mao—is not real, nothing like this would have been permitted to happen. It’s like allegory, showing us the encounter of the Nixons with Madame Mao, complete with the final posture of confrontation between Madame Mao and a resolute Chou En-Lai.
Goodman’s libretto is full of brilliant little gems. When in the second scene Nixon speaks of wanting to “bring our armies home”, Mao replies “our armies do not go abroad.” In this scene Nixon the pragmatist American encounters a philosopher in Mao, accompanied by a trio of women echoing his words as though they were oracular epigrams.
In the last scene of the opera, Mao says the following:
“ We recoil from victory and all its works.
What do you think of that Karl Marx? Speak up!”
The very last lines of the opera are given to the principal we saw first, namely Chou En-Lai, sung by Russell Braun, a wonderfully lyrical ending after the conflict & bombast you saw above at the conclusion of Act II.
“I am old & cannot sleep forever like the young
No hope that death will be a novelty
but endless wakefulness when I
put down my work and go to bed.
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.
Come, heal this wound
At this hour nothing can be done
Just before dawn the birds begin
the warblers who prefer the dark
the cage-birds answering
To work! Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.”
The opera ends in this gentle poetic speculation.
I found an intimate performance from Russell Braun singing this same music in 2020, accompanied by Carolyn Maule at the piano.
I wish the COC would revive the work.