Rethinking 'Nixon in China' : Contemporary opera is updated as Peter Sellars revises staging of 1987 production in light of the Tian An Men killings

Almost three years after its premiere, Music Center Opera finally will present "Nixon in China"--the opera it agreed to co-produce in 1986. Ironically, the passage of time since the initial 1987 Houston Grand Opera production has seen major developments in China that are being addressed by the creators, so Los Angeles audiences will see a premiere, of sorts.

Post-Tian An Men Square, the ending of "Nixon in China"--the staging, at least--has been revised.

The brainchild of director Peter Sellars and based on then-President Richard M. Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, the opera will have five performances beginning Sept. 11, delayed from the previous season so that it could be part of the current Los Angeles Festival, also directed by Sellars.

These performances mark both a culmination and a crossroads for the opera. Although this production has already run in five other cities and been documented on television and recordings (with a video disc from London due next year), Sellars says he has only now really resolved some of its issues, working a major revision on his staging in light of the Tian An Men Square massacre.

"I have a feeling that we'll finally come to terms with the piece here for the first time," Sellars says. "We really got the piece figured out in Amsterdam. It's been wonderful to work on 'Nixon' over six times and begin to the solve the piece.

"Now we can begin to look at what the piece really does say about U.S.-Chinese relationships," Sellars reports. "I think a lot of people thought of it as a little bit on the light side. It's darker elements will come to the fore now. I'm going to restage a couple of episodes, rather completely, in a further development of the ballet and the last act."

There is much there that could lend itself to such darkening. Parodying "The Red Detachment of Women," the ballet by choreographer Mark Morris is already a high-voltage confrontation between revolutionary imperatives and establishment ennervation, between theater and reality. The chorus sings "Nothing can change without discipline, give me that gun," giving way to Chiang Ch'ing's fire-breathing aria. There she sings "When I appear people hang upon my words," but the music emphasizes the word hang in grim irony, only then completing the phrase.

In the finale, the Nixons and Mao and Chiang Ch'ing reflect as interlaced couples on their past, the Americans with simplicity and unconscious humor, the Chinese with tired philosophy and sexual innuendo. It is left for Chou En'Lai to mediate their nostalgia and hopes with his own uncertain reflections on how much of what they had done (in the past and during the just ending meeting) was for good.

We saw our parents' nakedness;

Rivers of blood will be required

To cover them. Rivers of blood. . . .

A bankrupt people repossessed

The ciphers of its history

And not one character could say

Whether the war was over yet

Or if they'd written off the debt.

What Sellars will make of this remains to be seen. He does say, though, that " 'Nixon' is staged in many ways as a classical Chinese opera," which might surprise many who have described it in terms of traditional Western opera. He points out though, that "there will be actual Kun opera in the festival (by performers from Shanghai now living here) and people will be able to make some comparisons."

Concluding the opera seems to have been difficult from the beginning. Adams actually created a separate work, "The Chairman Dances," as a sort of orchestral gloss on part of the finale scenario discarded early on in the collaborative process. Sellars revised his staging for the final scene itself during rehearsals for the Houston Grand Opera premiere, changing the setting from an exhausted, slightly tipsy banquet to a surrealistic dormitory.

The final scene has also been restored to its original intent as Act III, separated now by an intermission from the ballet scene that caps Act II. In another departure from the original production, "Nixon" has gained the hotly debated blessings of supertitles. Composer John Adams has been quoted as saying he banned them in Houston, but now after seeing the piece in several other houses, he says he is in favor of them. As in Houston and elsewhere, "Nixon" will be amplified and is, of course, in English. But Adams cites the subtle glories of librettist Alice Goodman's text as sufficient reason to enlist the aid of the projected word, though he is not sure how it will work in the multilayered finale.

As Nixon in China opened diplomatic doors, so "Nixon in China" has been opening opera doors--literally and metaphorically--around the world. Not since the heyday of Puccini was a new opera--and a first opera, at that, for Adams and Goodman--awaited with such shrewedly stoked anticipation. More amazing yet, its impact has easily balanced all the preliminary buzz.

With its expressive, amplified, post-minimalist music, its use of iconic figures from the mythology of the media culture, its dramaturgic freshness, "Nixon in China" is representative of a burgeoning and peculiarly American school of opera, one that sells readily to a public here and in Europe. "There's no doubt that contemporary American opera--especially by minimalist composers and especially on contemporary themes--is very attractive," says Peter Hemmings, general director of Music Center Opera.

In the use of such figures, "Nixon in China" is not unique--Anthony Davis' "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" and Philip Glass' "Satyagraha" are important and influential predecessors--though it is groundbreaking in using subjects who are still living. Houston Grand Opera protected itself, its co-commissioning companies and the "Nixon" creators, with an "errors and omissions" insurance policy in case material in the opera was challenged as defamatory or not in the public domain. (In case you were wondering, Nixon himself has not seen the opera. His representative, John Taylor, says that the President has never liked to see himself on television or other media, and has little interest in opera.)

Post-modern theater is much more intent on involving audiences than alienating them, and contemporary figures such as Nixon, Malcolm X and Gandhi have been subjects of contemporary American operas in part because of the immediacy of the feelings they arouse.

"A new opera that wants to become engaged with life in the 20th Century must know that 20th-Century society is a highly mediated society," says James Collins, author of "Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism." "American post-modernism is much more engaged with the here and now. Stories like Nixon's are larger than life, but there is a verisimilitude, a documentary quality to them."

Adams concurs, with elaborations. "I think what is most interesting is the larger picture, of taking stories from contemporary life, of characters whose situations are known through the highly distorting view of the media. It's interesting to use these stories, and then to get beyond them to the roots of the characters."

In 1987 Sellars said, "It's nice that people can feel that extra frisson again and realize that opera really does engage with the world. There's going to be a real surge of writing like this in the 1990s."

His prediction is coming true. In July, "The Manson Family," by John Moran, a disciple of Philip Glass, premiered at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in New York. It deals with its notorious subjects in the allusive, non-linear fashion of the Glass/Robert Wilson "Einstein on the Beach."

Sellars' 1987 prophecy has also proven to be literally self-fulfilling. The "Nixon" gang of three is now hard at work on "The Death of Klinghoffer," dealing with the tragic events of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, which may prove even more polarizing and controversial.

Collins sees the use of such volatile subjects as part of an effort to redefine contemporary, cutting-edge work.

"It is an attempt to break out of the whole avant-garde Establishment. It really takes apart the avant-garde position of art as oppositional and aggressive--there's been a profound rethinking of that in the last 10 years--and goes further. It shows very clearly that you can have art that is very oppositional, making a clear political statement, but that is also direct and part of the media culture."

"Klinghoffer" will premiere in Brussels in March, 1991, turning up at the Music Center in 1992, with the Los Angeles Festival numbered among the co-comissioning forces. "I hope it reinforces the point that opera is up-to-date," Sellars says in a monumental understatement, given the current events in the Middle East.

"I really view it as a religious drama," says Adams, who has finished the first draft of the score. "I'm almost done with it, then I turn around and do six months of grueling orchestration. Obviously, the tone is darker. It's a little more articulated structurally" than "Nixon," he says, and less like a verismo opera. It will be in two acts, with a prologue and epilogue, and the singers in it will sing more than one part.

Adams is going to conduct "Klinghoffer" in the San Francisco and Glyndebourne runs, and for the recording. (The "Nixon" recording was also contracted before the opera premiered, as was the telecast--rare indeed for any contemporary opera, let alone a neophyte effort.) He also says he will be conducting here in the future, though he is coy about when and where and in what.

"I have to remind myself that there's a strong possibility that my next opera or succeeding opera may not be as famous or well-known," Adams says, while making a strong pitch for his newer music. "I'm always trying to tell Simon Rattle that I have other things than 'Harmonium,' " a work for chorus and orchestra on poems by Emily Dickinson and John Donne, dating from 1980.

Is there then an in-joke hidden in Mao's pensive lines in the "Nixon" finale?

I shut my eyes and, listening

Hard, hear the old harmonium

We left behind.

As Sellars grapples yet again with "Nixon," there are already other takes on the opera. The Bielefeld Opera mounted a radically new production last December, directed by John Dew, and designed by Gottfried Pilz with choreography by Calvin Jackson. There, in defiance of librettist Goodman's insistence that the opera is heroic, Nixon and Mao were given putty noses in a garish and heavy-handed satire.

Adams is not happy with what he has heard about that production, but glad to see that the opera is attractive on its own merits, rather than simply as a vehicle for Sellars.

"It is encouraging, because after spending two years on a work, you hope it has a life of its own," the composer says. Another new production, with an unusually long run of 15 performances, will be mounted in Finland in the fall by Jorma Hynninen's Finnish National Opera.

All of this activity is part of the blossoming of contemporary American opera. "I think lots of things are conspiring so that now companies are competing for new operas," says Sellars, who in characteristic fashion chortles openly over the success of "Nixon."

"I love the fact that opera companies have realized that what puts them on the map is not engaging Placido Domingo for 72 hours, but doing new work like 'Nixon.' "

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