Vancouver Opera review: Nixon In China

Published on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 by Margot Griffiths

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Opera lovers hope that the object of their affections will have some connection to contemporary life.

As the Vancouver Opera’s golden anniversary year continues, this hope is fully realized in the upcoming production of Nixon in China. This opera had its world premiere in 1987, in Houston, Texas.

Now, over 20 years later, the Canadian premiere of John Adams’ masterpiece will happen right here on our doorstep. Prepare to be dazzled by one of the 20th century’s operatic standouts.

The hallmarks of Adams’ work are musical minimalism and political examination. Nixon in China explores the 1972 meeting of President Nixon and Chairman Mao – an event that changed the political landscape forever. In an opera of polarities, the yin and yang of communism and capitalism come face to face.

The curtain rises on the presidential aircraft parked in Beijing’s airport. Three Americans deplane to begin a historic journey with three Chinese. Richard and Pat Nixon are joined by Henry Kissinger in an effort to forge a bond with an aging Mao Tse-tung, his ambitious wife, Chiang Ch’ing and the Communist premier Chou En-lai.
The ensuing interactions are predictably fraught. Nixon blunders forward with a simplistic image of peace, while Mao parries with philosophical riddles.

In the second act, Pat Nixon is trotted off to various venues designed to showcase the good life in China. She sings an aria full of hope, yet a dark, repressive tone pervades.

Later that evening, the six key characters attend an opera written by Mao’s wife that depicts women of the Red Army saving oppressed peasants from a brutal landowner.

This politicized piece of theatre becomes an opera within an opera, as the central characters are somehow drawn into the Red Army drama.

Pat Nixon declares for the defenseless peasants, Kissinger aligns with the brutal landowner, while Madam Mao and Chou En-lai line up in a reversal of these opposing sides.

Pandemonium ensues on stage, and in a masterstroke of irony, the Cultural Revolution has its perhaps singular moment of interactive theatre.

Act three reveals the fundamental futility of the peace venture. The Maos and the Nixons reflect on the personal struggles that have brought them to this point. It is left to Chou to ask the deeper question, “How much of what we did was good?”

Pulitzer Prize winner, John Adams, can be described as a “minimalist,” whose works reflect one of the most popular experimental music styles of the late 20th century.

Minimalism may be defined as a return to simplicity, working with limited or minimal notes or fewer instruments, creating a more austere sound that may rely on the rhythmic energy of repetition. Adams’ compositions advance from strict minimalism to music that is more developmental and directed.

Andrew Porter of The New Yorker writes of Adams’ “flexible new language… that results in a highly polished resonant sound.” Poet Alice Goodman’s libretto is comprised entirely of couplets, creating an epic quality to this complex work.

As Vancouver welcomed the world to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Nixon in China takes gold in the Cultural Olympiad. This is the Vancouver Opera’s season showpiece – an exciting, bold offering that promises to thrill both opera buffs, and those experiencing this grand art form for the first time. And now is the time.

Performances March 13, 16, 18 and 20. For information and tickets: www.vancouveropera.ca  VO ticket center: 604/683-0222.