"We live in unsettled times," the president sings at the beginning of John Adams' opera "Nixon in China." He has just arrived in Peking (now Beijing) for his 1972 meeting with Chairman Mao, thus opening up relations between the U.S. and China and paving the way for China's global ascent. Unsettled times, the president understands, provide the prospect for making history.
The operatic Nixon made this case for the first time here at the Civic Theatre on Saturday night as part of the San Diego Opera's 50th-anniversary celebration. Just a year ago, the company announced that opera was no longer a viable art form in unsettled times. And it took the scandalous step of simply closing shop.
Fortunately, the audience protested and clearer heads cleaned house. The company is poised to follow the lead of the opera Nixon, who toasts his Chinese hosts by proposing a "long march on new highways." The president's further Peking banquet counsel could just as easily be for a city an hour south of Nixon's Western White House in San Clemente: "We must seize the hour and seize the day."
San Diego seizes. Three operas from the 50th season, including the prophetic "Nixon in China," were ultimately saved. Last week, the company announced the appointment of a new general director and the potential for a new direction. David Bennett, executive director of New York's Gotham Chamber Opera, which stages neglected works in unconventional sites, will take over in June.
There are more wonderful signifiers between "Nixon in China" and the company. Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera for the opening of a new venue in 1987, "Nixon" was the first opera by Adams and the beginning of his historic ongoing collaboration with Peter Sellars and a new kind of American opera.
San Diego's "Nixon," which will have three additional performances through Sunday, does indeed offer promise. Road signs for a long operatic march on new highways have gone up.
The modest production by James Robinson is well traveled. Created for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2004, it has been presented by a number of midsize companies around the country. Improvements have been made over the years. Allen Moyer's sets, James Schuette's costumes and Seán Curran's choreography all make reference to Sellars' classic original production, most recently staged at the Metropolitan Opera four years ago.
Television sets, with news footage of Nixon's trip, make up much of the décor. On the intimate St. Louis stage, they trivialized an opera ultimately about the inner lives and insecurities of world leaders, revealing how news is really made. In the humongous San Diego Civic, the images on the sets were, from my seat near the rear of the hall, indistinct. But annoying blinking light proved preferable to overspecific imagery.
Robinson has also toned down the production's original sophomoric glibness. It may be too plain for a stage the size of the Civic, but neither did it distract on this occasion from allowing a strong cast, chorus and orchestra to make a dramatic and musical statement.
Baritone Franco Pomponi went slightly overboard with Nixon's bluster and paranoia, but when he peeled away the defensive layers, the president's anxiety became all the more moving. Maria Kanyova carefully revealed the wisdom and burden behind First Lady Pat Nixon's plainspokenness.
Mao can't be too inscrutable; even Chad Shelton's straightforward delivery of Mao-isms made them no less striking. Kathleen Kim delivered Madame Mao coloratura fireworks with fearsome brilliance. Patrick Carfizzi brought an unusually Verdian command to Henry Kissinger's pronouncements, including excusing himself to go to the toilet.
A larger chorus would have been nice for this large hall, as would a more developed ballet for Adams' trope on the kitschy "Red Detachment of Women." But Joseph Mechavich's lean, rhythmically focused conducting kept everything in focus. Adams asks for light amplification of the singers, and Brian Mohr's deft sound design was a model of sensitivity.
With "Nixon in China," San Diego Opera has seized the hour. Now comes the day. The company has support. Civic Theatre, awful a venue as it is, was full Saturday night. The audience was a happy mix of what seemed like the traditional opera crowd and a young new one. Musical values remain high.
Next season, a holdover from the old regime, lacks variety: two Puccini works and a new comic opera, "Great Scott," from a neo-Puccinian composer, Jake Heggie. Unsettled times aren't going away. But neither is San Diego Opera. Now if only the new highways would include roads in all directions away from the uninviting Civic Theatre.