Archive for the ‘Nixon in China March 2012’ Category


Nixon in China

Eugene Opera

Eugene Opera rose to the challenge of Nixon in China with its own new production (seen Mar. 18), by director Sam Helfrich — the strongest performance by the company that I’ve experienced. John Jantzi’s chorus especially leaped to a new high with its fine singing and, like the principal cast, clearly enunciated Alice Goodman’s elegant poetry. The orchestra under Andrew Bisantz, Eugene Opera’s music director, did full justice to John Adams’s magnificent, often beautiful score. Bisantz conducted with rocking rhythmic energy and a wide dynamic range, wonderfully soft in such lyrical passages as the banquet toasts and Chou En-lai’s closing lines.

Helfrich’s production offered choreography by Benjamin Goodman, scenery designed by Peter Beudert, costumes by Jonna Hayden and lighting by Michael Peterson. In a backlash against such reductive phrases as “ripped from the headlines” and “CNN opera,” many have stressed that Nixon in China‘s characters, buoyed by music and poetry, are more mythological or archetypal than historical figures. In this vein, Helfrich and his team, while maintaining a realistic style, distanced their production from news-footage accuracy and from the literalism of the original Peter Sellars staging. Gone were The Spirit of ’76, the presidential seal, Pat Nixon’s red coat and red dress and the ubiquitous orange drink. Baritone Lee Gregory and soprano Kelly Kaduce did not impersonate the historical Nixons. Kaduce, Helfrich and Hayden liberated Pat from the traditional Republican wife mold, raising her hemline to the knee and presenting her as playful and fun-loving.

During the rising scales and opening chorus, Nixon put on his suit and tie above the dark stage in an aperture of light. The unit set, tall wooden panels ornamented with carvings near their tops, opened for the stairs to the invisible plane. Nixon descended alone, which denied Pat a grand entrance but helped us see her as an individual when she appeared for Scene 3. At “Washington’s birthday!” Pat broke out dancing, and the other banquet guests followed, Henry Kissinger clutching his aching back. In the first scene of Act II, waves of bicyclists twice crossed the stage, and Pat played with two live pigs. “The Red Detachment of Women” followed the original scenario before palm trees and a backdrop of a tropical bay. For Act III, Helfrich took up a setting the opera’s creators had discarded — the remains of a third banquet, with tables and chairs askew. Nixon lounged on the floor and, for privacy, crawled with Pat under a table and tablecloth.

Gregory excelled as a young, vibrant Nixon, mastering the tricky rhythms of the pop-inspired “News” aria and the extended legato of “Fathers and sons, let us join hands,” singing with consistent tonal beauty. As always, it seems, Kaduce was the best visual and vocal actor onstage, projecting strength as a multi-faceted Pat, incisively phrasing “This is prophetic!” — although many of her high notes were strident, and a few were flat.

As Mao Tse-tung, Mark Beudert, Eugene Opera’s general director, dominated Scene 2 with his dramatic high tenor, which rang out splendidly at “crucify us on a cross of usury,” but his quieter Act III singing sounded labored. Conversely, Laura Decher-Wayte’s accurate, gentle soprano lacked thrust and edge in “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” but proved fine in Chiang Ch’ing’s dreamy Act III musings. Christopher Burchett projected a distinctive baritone and saintlike humility as Chou En-lai; he suffered a memory lapse during his banquet toast. Veteran bass Michael Gallup drew lots of laughs as Kissinger, the one principal who is never allowed to be heroic. Amanda Crider, Bereniece Jones and Lina Delmastro held their own as Mao’s secretaries and looked striking in bright aqua-blue dresses. spacer



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Famed American director Sam Helfrich returns to stage DEAD MAN WALKING:

Sam Helfrich began his theatre career as a child actor in California, studying at the young conservatory and performing on the main stage at South Coast Repertory, a tony-award winning regional theatre. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, he received a BA in Russian language and literature, and spent six months in Leningrad, USSR, to further his studies. After college he moved to Spain, where he spent three years working and studying in Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. He received a certificate in Spanish language and literature from the University of Barcelona. Upon returning to New York, Mr. Helfrich studied at the 42nd Street Collective (formerly Playwrights Horizons theatre school), where he wrote and directed several plays for productions on the old theatre row.

Later, he completed his MFA in theatre arts at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, studying with Eduardo Machado, Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff, Kristen Linklater, and others. After finishing his MFA, Mr. Helfrich began to pursue opera stage direction full time. Proficient in both Spanish and French, he began working in Europe immediately, assisting on new productions of several operas in both Barcelona and Geneva, while directing his own productions at home in New York. His first opera project was a double bill of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night(Argento) and La Voix Humaine (Poulenc) at Hofstra University, followed soon after by a production of Die Walküre(Wagner) at Riverside Church in Manhattan.

In 2002 Mr. Helfrich formed his own theatre company, Captains of Industry, to produce Transparency of Val, by Stephen Belber. The production was widely acclaimed during its limited run in 2002.

Mr. Helfrich continues to direct opera and theatre in New York and regionally at companies including Spoleto Festival/USA, Eugene Opera, Virginia Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Portland Opera, Opera Boston, Berkshire Opera, Wolf Trap Opera and Boston Baroque Orchestra, among others. Recent opera highlights include the American premiere of Philip Glass’ Kepler, at Spoleto Festival/USA, Adams’ Nixon in China at Eugene Opera, the world premiere of Michael Dellaira’s The Secret Agent at Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, the Armel Opera Festival in Hungary, and Opera Avignon, A fully staged Messiah with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Don Giovanni with Yale Opera, The Turn of the Screw at Boston Lyric Opera, Philip Glass’ Orphée at Virginia Opera, Portland Opera, and Glimmerglass Opera, Anthony Davis’ Amistad at Spoleto Festival/USA, and Aidaat Opera Omaha. Upcoming projects include new productions of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at Virginia Opera and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at Eugene Opera, as well as an original Wagner project in Rostock, Germany. His recent off-Broadway production of Tape, by Stephen Belber, played to wide acclaim. In addition, Mr. Helfrich has recently held guest-teaching positions at Yale University, NYU, and Manhattan School of Music.

Here’s a great moment Sam (and Jonna Hayden, our Costume Designer) moment from NIXON IN CHINA:  Kelly Kaduce as Pat Nixon NOT wearing “the red coat”, and the live pigs:


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The latest contribution for our guest blogger, Lenny Small.

Among the most the interesting periods in the more than 400 years of opera are when one operatic style changes to another. With Nixon in China, a minimalist opera, we are in the midst of one of those major changes. The opera devotees who will be in the audience for Nixon in China, (March 16 and March 18), may not realize it but they will be watching and listening to one of those historic moments in opera.

Opera has gone through a long history of change from its Renaissance beginnings in the 16th century period with the operas of Monteverdi up to the present with the new minimalist operas of John Adams and Philip Glass.  Minimalist  opera is part of the overall minimalism art scene of painting, sculpture and music.  In music, the simplest possible material is repeated many times with small changes that are introduced gradually or with the addition of other simple repetitive material that eventually changes in its synchronization to produce a trance-like effect.  It is often referred to as repetitive music that can become hypnotic.

John Cage  laid the ground work for minimalist opera, but it was John Adams who first put his minimalist opera Nixon in China on the stage of major opera houses  in the United States and England for the first time.

John Adams

I could not have been more rudely awakened than when I heard Adam’s music for the first time at a Met HD/live broadcast of Dr. Atomic.  Thus by the time I went to see “Nixon in China” I was better prepared for a full afternoon of John Adams’ music. After two more viewings of Nixon (it was broadcast on Public Television and I recorded it), I was totally entranced by the work. Up until that time, my entire knowledge of Adam’s music had been limited to his movie scores and Dr. Atomic. Adams was still a new voice to me in the field of opera and I was still remembering the romantic works of Verdi, Bellini and Rossini.  On the other hand, Nixon in China reminded me of the first time I heard Richard Strauss’ Salome with its dissonances and atonality. However, by my third viewing of that opera over the years, I have become so engrossed with its music and that I hardly hear the initial discord that I first remembered.

What makes it so easy to be mesmerized by the score of Nixon in China is the fact that the libretto is based on a piece of current history and involves two very dissimilar political societies. It is difficult to imagine this opera being set to any other type of music and be as effective.

I  urge everyone to attend the upcoming performace of  Nixon in China and see for themselves a new style of opera that will change your thinking of  21st century opera.

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The set is FINISHED and will be in Eugene in early January. Here are some pictures of the top section of one of the room walls:

The upper walls:

All the upper walls:

and the ballet drop and trees:

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Here are some pictures from the shop in Tucson AZ where the set for Nixon in China is being constructed. First, the scrim seen at the beginning of the show:

The we have The Elephant…

These pictures make me look forward to the completed set–they’re beautiful!

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Sing that again — but in English, this time

For The Register-Guard
Published: Thursday, Oct 27, 2011 05:01AM

This year’s National Opera Week, from Friday to Nov. 6, provides a convenient opportunity to consider why Eugene Opera’s choice of “Nixon in China” for its second production this season is both unusual and exciting.

This modern opera by American composer John Adams and his English librettist, Alice Goodman, begs two questions:

Why don’t we hear opera in English more often? And shouldn’t an art form that depends on storytelling be understood by its audiences?

For most people, reading the words “opera” and “English” in one sentence is as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Terms like “opera in English” or “English opera” seem to go against the general assumption that opera is primarily Italian or at least French or German.

Historically, the belief that “all opera is Italian” reached absurd levels in 18th century London when George Frideric Handel, a German composer, wrote Italian operas for an English-speaking audience.

Ironically, English and American operas are considered exotic even in English-speaking countries, and the idea of translating foreign operas into English is thought to be even more bizarre.

Most people today expect that in order to be authentic, an opera must be performed in its original language.

However, there are a few of us crying in the wilderness for all opera to be translated into the language of the audience.

Most 19th century composers assumed their operas would be translated. Even that megalomaniac Richard Wagner wanted his operas to be understood by all audiences, not held up as monuments to bad German.

How ridiculous to have Russian and Czech, let alone Italian and French operas, sung so that we have to read the stories on supratitles.

If Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” or Wagner’s massive Ring Cycle were sung in English, would they be less authentic?

Or, more simply put, would opera lose its snob appeal?

During my opera sojourns, I have encountered two opera houses that routinely perform every opera in English and their productions were revelations to me.

The English National Opera in London presents all operas in English, as does the Opera Theater of St. Louis. Seeing Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” in English, as I have in St. Louis and Minneapolis, was a riveting experience.

Even W.A. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” comes alive when sung and spoken in English. What the audience gains in each case is dramatic immediacy.

I believe the only legitimate reason for not translating all operas is that singers today travel so much that they would have to relearn their parts in numerous languages. Yet the London and St. Louis opera companies thrive.

But opera in English also includes the less well-known repertoire of English and American operas. Because they are not the blockbusters that “La Traviata” and “Madama Butterfly” are, these operas are rarely scheduled.

Until the mid-20th century, England and the United States lagged behind the traditional opera-producing countries, even though England’s first great opera, Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” was performed as early as 1688.

Only with Benjamin Britten’s brilliant operatic output from 1941 to 1973 did opera in English take center stage for many companies.

Since this midcentury mark, English and American opera compositions have exceeded the output of the traditional “operatic countries.”

The topics and the music of these modern operas may surprise some people. Many American operas rely either on American literature or on 20th century historical events, rather than on Spanish gypsies or Japanese geishas.

Prolific American composer Jake Haggie has written several successful operas. The most recent is his exciting adaptation of “Moby-Dick,” and his earliest is the well-traveled and riveting opera based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book, “Dead Man Walking.”

Both Harvey Milk and Anna Nicole Smith have been memorialized in recent operas.

American composers also have modified what is known and sometimes hated as modern music.

Their music is more approachable than the angular, atonal music favored by the avant-garde European composers since Arnold Schoenberg. Philip Glass’s minimalist music is haunting in “Satyagraha,” his depiction of Mahatma Gandhi’s early career.

That opera is currently a hit at the Metropolitan Opera and will be shown on one of the Met’s high-definition simulcasts this season.

Adams, the dean of American opera composers, and his collaborators Goodman and director Peter Sellars, have specialized in recent American history. “Nixon in China” was their first, and to date, their most durable effort.

Eugene Opera’s choice of “Nixon in China” may be risky because the work is unfamiliar, but it is also exciting to see a small company embrace what is happening in the larger world of opera. I hope it will also lead to more productions in English.

Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-­Guard.

Copyright © 2011 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA

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