“Nixon” is not your typical spectacle
BY BOB KEEFER
Published: Thursday, Mar 15, 2012 05:00AM
Nixon is the one. “Nixon in China,” that is. Composer John Adams’ contemporary opera, first performed in 1987, might be the most challenging production Eugene Opera ever has taken on.
In theory, it could be a hard sell.
First, of course, it’s a story about Richard Nixon in a town that went big for his liberal Democratic opponent, George McGovern.
And naturally, we’re talking opera — not an easy sell to the majority of football-obsessed Eugene residents.
And then, even among classical music lovers, this is minimalist opera, with a sound that’s about as far from Giuseppe Verdi or W.A. Mozart as, say, Thelonius Monk is from the Monkees.
But once you get past all those superficialities, “Nixon in China” is actually a lot easier to get into than your typical three-hour Italian spectacle.
The music is unfamiliar, but it’s really easy to listen to, even the first time around.
The songs are in English. And unless you’ve been living in a cave all your life, you’re probably familiar with the basic outlines of the story.
In 1972, President Nixon startled the world by opening up trade with our longtime Communist enemies, traveling to what was then called Peking to seal the deal.
Take that basic, almost Shakespearean plot line, add in such characters as first lady Pat Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Chairman Mao Zedong (usually spelled in the West as Mao Tse-tung in those days) and his Premier Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), and you have a tale as rich and embroidered as anything Richard Wagner could have imagined.
Rhythmically very tricky
The music may be easy enough to listen to, but it’s devilishly hard to sing.
“Rhythmically, it’s very tricky,” said Lee Gregory, the baritone who will sing the role of Nixon. “There are a lot of major changes, and mostly there are a lot of misplaced accents.
“It’s very easy to get lost.”
Gregory has appeared twice before with Eugene Opera, singing Figaro two years ago in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Leporello in 2009’s “Don Giovanni.”
Like most of the cast — none of whom has performed “Nixon in China” before — Gregory is too young to remember Nixon as president.
“I’ve done a lot of research, though,” the singer said. “There is a lot of footage of him. My only memories of him are post-presidency. He was almost a caricature of himself.”
“Nixon in China” is opera, not documentary, so there is no need for singers to look exactly like the historic figures they portray.
“We are not treating this as a historic re-creation,” Gregory said. “I don’t bear much resemblance to Richard Nixon. The character is in the piece itself, in the text.
“There are some stumblings and stutterings that I am able to use to bring out the character. What has been interesting for me is to approach the character more from the inside out.”
Playing the first lady, Pat Nixon, will be soprano Kelly Kaduce, who sang Countess Almaviva here in 2010’s “Figaro.”
Pat Nixon is a much more introspective character, Kaduce says, than the heroic figures around her.
“She is very optimistic and — what’s the word I’m looking for? — she’s not naive, but she always looks at the bright side of life.”
Beautiful and enigmatic
The opera’s libretto, by poet Alice Goodman, uses language that can be both beautiful and enigmatic.
Kaduce quoted some lines from “This Is Prophetic,” an aria she sings as Pat Nixon:
Across the plain one man is marching —
The Unknown Soldier has risen from his tomb;
Let him be recognized at home.
The Prodigal. Give him his share:
The eagle nailed to the barn door …
“There’s a little bit of James Joyce there,” she said with a laugh. “You might need a pamphlet to go along with it to explain the words.”
She agreed wholeheartedly with Gregory about the challenge of singing Adams’ music.
“It wasn’t too tricky to learn, pitchwise. But rhythmically it’s incredibly tricky. It’s not that it has meters that are difficult to decipher, but the fact that they change so quickly, and the way it sounds in your ear.
“For example, Adams will have a three-four bar, but you’ll sing it in two. It sounds like a jazzy two, but really it’s three, over the top of this two-bar.
“You can’t ever just relax!”
No 747 this time
Eugene Opera’s “Nixon” will differ in an immediately obvious way from previous productions, in which a Boeing 747 lands on stage to begin the story.
Mark Beudert, Eugene Opera’s general director (and the tenor singing Mao in this show) decided early on that creating even a stage version of the airplane was simply too expensive.
Instead, the show will open with a large, lighted scrim, behind which the figure of Nixon gradually will become visible. Singing the role of Chou En-Lai will be Christopher Burchett; Michael Gallup will sing Kissinger.
Laura Decher Wayte will sing the role of Madame Mao.
Chairman Mao’s three secretaries, who form a sort of Greek chorus to the proceedings, will be sung by Amanda Crider, Bereniece Jones and Lina Delmastro.
The stage director is Sam Helfrich. Andrew Bisantz conducts.
The choreography is by Benjamin Goodman. Stage design is by Peter Beudert, and costume design is by Jonna Hayden.
Call Bob Keefer at 541-338-2325 or you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nixon in China
What: Eugene Opera produces John Adams’ treatise on President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Hult Center Silva Concert Hall, Seventh Avenue and Willamette Street
Tickets: $20 to $84 at 541-682-5000 and EugeneOpera.com
Copyright © 2012 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA