Richard Milhous Nixon was many things to many people: statesman, scoundrel, triumphant underdog, sore loser – the list goes on. But in Houston, the 37th president of the United States became something else: the central character in an opera.
The three-act production burst into the world at the shiny new Wortham Center. There, to the dramatic, pulsating sound of an orchestra, a replica of Air Force One descended onto the stage. And when baritone James Maddalena, portraying Nixon, walked down the gangway and started to sing, people in the audience realized they were watching something at once very familiar and very strange.
Nixon in China is an opera – like Carmen, Tosca or The Barber of Seville. But its characters aren’t drawn from European history and literature. They’re real, modern political figures from America and China. And Nixon put Houston on the operatic map in a prominent way.
The story of Nixon in China began three years earlier, in a meeting between David Gockley, the HGO’s general director from 1972 to 2005, and the brilliant young opera director Peter Sellars.
“Peter brought me the idea,” says Gockley, speaking from San Francisco, where he recently retired as general director of the San Francisco Opera. “I met with Peter in New York, and talked to him about coming to work for us in Houston. He blurted out, ‘What about an opera on Nixon’s visit to China?’, and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’”
But if Sellars was crazy, he was crazy like a fox. He had already sketched the idea out in his head and even had a composer in mind to write the music: John Adams.
“John was unknown to me at the time,” Gockley says. “But I went and listened to some of his music. I thought it was quite special, and it gave the project a real ‘critical mass.’”
At the time, Adams was in his late 30s. He was based in the San Francisco area, where he was making a name for himself with his orchestral compositions. But Adams hadn’t yet written an opera. And when Sellars approached him about Nixon in China, like Gockley, he had his doubts.
“Richard Nixon had been the bogeyman of my young manhood,” Adams later wrote in his 2008 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction. But he also remembered being impressed by Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. “It was a bold gesture,” he wrote, “this idea of walking straight into the Communist heart of darkness and offering a good old Rotarian handshake.”
To write the opera’s text, Sellars chose the poet Alice Goodman. Together, the three collaborators built the opera around six principal characters: Nixon, his wife Pat, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, his wife Madame Mao and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai.
If the subject of Nixon in China was strikingly novel, so, too, was the opera’s content. In a departure from the conventions of modern poetry and theater, Goodman wrote in rhyming couplets. “The people are the heroes now,” a chorus of Chinese cadres sings, “Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.”
And Adams distanced himself from the orthodoxies of 20th-century classical music. Rejecting dark, angular dissonance, his score for Nixon is full of brightly orchestrated chords and sweeping melodic lines. Adams’ opera sounded American, with music that was syncopated – jazzy, at times – and clearly influenced by such minimalist composers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
“It was one of the easier birthings of operas that I’ve been involved with,” Gockley says. “Usually there are drafts and workshops, to determine if the opera is on the right track. This project came about with hardly any argument from us that changes needed to be made. It was a surprisingly painless process.”
Conspicuously absent from the premiere were the real Nixon and his wife, or Kissinger, who all declined to attend. But the critics came in droves. And their response to Nixon was all over the map.
The New York Times dismissed the opera as “worth a few giggles, but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory.” London’s Guardian newspaper took an opposing view, declaring the production “a music-theater piece of mesmerizing beauty and immense theatrical flare.”
Most of the reviews shared a common quality: a sense that Adams, Sellars and Goodman had upended all expectations. Indeed, anyone attending the opening night who anticipated a literal unfolding of the events of Nixon’s visit to China was surely surprised. And anyone who expected the opera to “rehabilitate” Nixon, or further tarnish his already-damaged reputation, soon realized the opera doesn’t do either of those things.
Rather, Nixon in China turns its principal characters into almost-surreal archetypes. Both Nixon and Mao are presented as visionary agents of historical destiny. Chou En-Lai is contemplative and philosophical, Madame Mao is strident and doctrinaire. Pat Nixon is the only character whose portrayal seems rooted in reality. Bizarrely, Kissinger is reduced to an awkward buffoon – and he also appears in a ballet scene, cast as an evil Chinese warlord.
“I think people were fascinated to see these characters who were so familiar to us up on stage, doing theatrical things,” Gockley says.
Then, Nixon started to travel. While the opera was still in the planning stages, Gockley had assembled a consortium of several opera companies to financially back the production and to ensure that Nixon was seen in several cities. Within a couple of years of its premiere, it was staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam.
And in 1988, the whole nation had a chance to see the work when PBS television presented it on “Great Performances.” The broadcast won an Emmy award.
In the years that followed, the opera became a major influence on new works for the lyric stage, spawning a sub-genre as the “CNN opera” – an opera built around contemporary people and events already well known through media exposure.
However, interest in Nixon waned during the ‘90s. “Then,” Gockley says, “it was done in St. Louis, in London, at the Metropolitan Opera, and then all over the place.” A rare revival was happening; a 20th century opera was succeeding in the 21st century. (This January, Houston Grand Opera will resurrect Nixon for the first time since its debut 30 years ago.)
“And now that Nixon in China is acknowledged as one of the greatest operas of the 20th century, the Houston Grand Opera is looked upon as having made a tremendous contribution,” Gockley says. “It may not have seemed that way at the time – but in retrospect, it’s thought of as a watershed event.”
© Colin Eatock 2016