Recalling ‘Nixon’: Suddenly it’s 1972

Times Staff Writer

Air Force One landed here Wednesday night. Its mission: to transform the image of a president. But not, probably, the one you think. John Adams’ “Nixon in China” is back, and the timing couldn’t be better.

Adams’ first opera, which he created with librettist Alice Goodman and stage director Peter Sellars, stunned the opera world when it had its premiere in Houston in 1987. Here was a disgraced former president, so often reduced to caricature, put sympathetically on the lyric stage by three decidedly liberal young artists. Here was Richard Nixon as a figure not so much of history as of mythology: Nixon as tragic figure, a king out of ancient Greek drama. Here, most surprising of all, was Nixon with an inner life.

In a libretto of breathtakingly elegant and pointed formal poetry (including rhyming couplets), Goodman also captures the stuttering president, the cameras of the world’s media focused on him, stepping off the plane in Beijing and, in an opening aria, proudly describing the historic moment in which he would launch relations with China and meet Chairman Mao. “News, news, news, news, news, news,” he keeps repeating, “has a, has a, has a / Has a kind of mystery ... As we made history.” The old Cold Warrior could just as easily be a modern president visiting Iraq.

The greatness of “Nixon in China” is this universality. In many ways, our time is still 1972, and the main problem with the new production at Opera Theatre of St. Louis is that it plays too much like history. A lot is being made of the fact that this is the first major new production since the striking, brilliant first one created by Sellars and regularly revised throughout the years (although there have been others in America and Europe). But little of the work of director James Robinson feels fresh. He does not imagine characters so much as an era.

With an inspired Adams score bursting with Minimalist invention, big band swing and an updating of operatic techniques ranging from Handel’s to Wagner’s, “Nixon” plays out on a vast, and often amusing, public scale. Nixon and Mao Tse-tung talk at rather than to each other. Dick and Pat banquet with Premier Chou En-lai. Pat visits schools and farms. Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) shows us Red Chinese ballet (blandly choreographed by Sean Curran) along with a sample of her own brand of artistic terrorism.


But in the end, all the characters revert to their own worlds. Mao and Nixon, near the climax of their careers, are uncertain about what their lives have meant. Wistful, unknowing, out of touch with themselves, they reveal how dangerously frail the thread of leadership really is and how difficult it is for radically different cultures to communicate with each other.

The main scenic element on the stage of the intimate Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre at Webster University is a collection of ‘70s-era blond wood console televisions broadcasting archival footage. But with the opera’s characters made up to look like wax figures, the effect is something akin to a combination of Madame Tussaud’s and the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace. A Middle American family sits on stage during the first act, eating Chinese takeout and watching the show as television.

Despite looking like Nixon Botoxed to within an inch of his life, Robert Orth does a reasonably fine job of capturing the man’s complexities. But his is the only satisfying interpretation, with little to play off, thanks to Mark Duffin’s studied Mao, Maria Kanyova’s oddly aggressive Pat and Jan Opalach’s buffoonish Henry Kissinger.

Musically, Chiang Ch’ing is the opera’s most glamorous figure, a wild and sexy coloratura -- in one German production she was even topless. Tracy Dahl’s Chiang is the mean, scary old Madame Mao of the Cultural Revolution; she’s believable, but, as in much of this production, literalism comes at the price of fantasy. Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En-lai is also too much a slice of history: the opera’s most eloquent character turned into a windbag.

What almost saves the evening are the expert and exciting conducting by Marin Alsop and excellent playing by members of the St. Louis Symphony. The amplification, however, is a failure. Adams’ score calls for it, in an effort to make words intelligible. But singers must be suited to amplification (little vibrato) and the miking must be done well, otherwise it has the opposite effect.

Still, this production (which will travel to Portland, Ore., Chicago, Minneapolis and Houston over the next three years) indicates that “Nixon in China,” little seen in America recently, is not only back but will probably stay back. Unless the world changes radically overnight, it will also stay disturbingly relevant.