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Opera Explores Tensions And Symbolism In Nixon's Visit To China

It’s difficult today to imagine a time when the United States and China didn’t have trade relations or communicate at all. But, in 1972, President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, a once-demonized Communist regime, was heralded as “the week that changed the world.” That historic week opened communication between the two countries after more than two decades of hostility. A new production of the opera, "Nixon in China," at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City explores the tensions and symbolism of that visit. 

A Look Back at the First "Nixon in China"

In 1987, Ward Holmquistserved as principal coach and assistant conductor at Houston Grand Opera for the world premiere of composer John Adams's first opera, "Nixon in China." The production included the verse libretto by poet Alice Goodman and stage production by Peter Sellars.

Holmquist recalls it was a formidable assignment.

"I’ve had very few scores in my professional life that have presented the rhythmic challenges that this one presents," he says. "And I truly enjoyed the experience, but it was one of the most difficult pieces that I’ve ever learned how to play."

John Adams's Minimalist Pulse

The work of John Adams, a Grammy and Pulitzer-prize winning composer, is rooted in minimalism. Holmquist, now the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's artistic director, says the "Nixon in China" score has hints of pop and jazz. The strongest element is the composer's sense of rhythm, a minimalist pulse.

"This is a pulsing and throbbing and rather intricately crafted score from a rhythmic point of view," Holmquist says. "And it gives all of the musicians, both the singers and the orchestral members and of course, the conductor, much to do in order to bring everything together and line it up."

"Nixon in China" to Kansas City

Ward Holmquist and the Lyric's general director Evan Luskin talked about presenting "Nixon in China" in Kansas City for years, looking for the right time and the right production. They found it in a new version directed by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh.

Cavanagh's multimedia production of "Nixon in China" premiered at Vancouver Opera in 2010. It's dynamic; it features film footage projected on to scrolls that drop from the ceiling, and exaggerated towering red chairs and podiums.

"As a dramatic editor, I look at how the piece is built," Cavanagh says. "And these six scenes, spread over three acts, it just has the most amazing structure where a kind of reality establishes each setting and fractures off."

Where Reality Meets Dreams

The opera begins with the arrival of Air Force One in Bejing (then called Peking). Computer generated imagery of the plane transitions into a full-scale model on stage. Scenes of the historic trip unfold: Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at a meeting in Chairman Mao’s study; a large banquet; and First Lady Pat Nixon on a public relations tour.

According to Cavanagh, the documentary aspect is a jumping off point for "Nixon in China." He says it’s really about where reality meets dreams.

"And ultimately it isn’t about those people going to China, that guy going to that country at that time. It has to be about each of us sitting in the seats," he says. "It’s about how we, how human beings, tend to view the epic events of their lives."

A Ballet within an Opera

At the Lyric's Opera Center, dancers and principal cast members gathered recently for a rehearsal of Act II, Scene II. In this scene, the Nixons are invited to watch a revolutionary ballet, Madame Mao's "The Detachment of Red Women" (danced in this production by the Kansas City Ballet). Chairman Mao's three secretaries sing:

Spit and polish, Polish and spit Blacken the boot And they submit, Embrace the foot,...

In the ballet, a young peasant woman is sexually exploited and tortured by her landlord, Lao Szu (played by Richard Paul Fink as Kissinger). Pat Nixon (played by Maria Kanyova) gets caught up in the story and tries to intervene; her husband, Richard Nixon (played by James Maddalena, who originated the role) reminds her that "it’s just a play."

KISSINGER (as Lao Szu): Whip her to death! PAT: They can't do that! NIXON: It's just a play. She'll get up afterwards, you'll see. Easy there, Hon.

A Sung Poem

The libretto, written by poet Alice Goodman, is in rhymed couplets, which provides a challenge for the singers along with the shift in time signatures.

Maria Kanyova, who estimates she's played the role of Pat Nixon six times, says there are wide skips and leaps.  But it feels natural to her now.

"It’s about letting the role sing itself," Kanyova says. "Rather than trying so hard to make it work and so hard to vocalize it."

The Right Production and the Right Venue

The Lyric’s Artistic Director Ward Holmquist says he’s been "dying" to conduct the score for 25 years. The company's move in 2011 into the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts provided the right venue. And he says director Michael Cavanagh's take on "Nixon in China" is true to the spirit of the original production. But now that the moment is here, there's a little anxiety.

"This is probably the farthest we (Lyric Opera of Kansas City) have stuck our necks out artistically as a company," says Holmquist. "So I’m very pleased that we can present it and I’m very curious to see what the reaction will be from our audience."

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents four performances of “Nixon in China” Saturday, March 10 through Sunday, March 18, 2012 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo. (816) 471-7344.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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