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'Nixon In China' And Why Modern Opera Can Be Scary And Exciting

Baritone Franco Pomponi is Richard Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova is Pat Nixon and baritone Chen-ye Yuan is Chou En-Lai in San Diego Opera's NIXON IN CHINA. March, 2015.
Ken Howard
Baritone Franco Pomponi is Richard Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova is Pat Nixon and baritone Chen-ye Yuan is Chou En-Lai in San Diego Opera's NIXON IN CHINA. March, 2015.

San Diego Opera production highlights Nixon's 1972 trip to China as inpiration

San Diego Opera's 'Nixon in China'
San Diego Opera's 'Nixon in China'
Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 changed international relations forever. While you’d expect to find it in the history books, you might be surprised to see it as the inspiration for a modern opera. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando revisits history with San Diego Opera’ production of Nixon in China.

ANCHOR INTRO: Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 changed international relations forever. While you’d expect to find it in the history books, you might be surprised to see it as the inspiration for a modern opera. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando revisits history with San Diego Opera’ production of Nixon in China.   James Robinson admits that’s he doesn’t know what a typical opera should be but he does know this… JAMES ROBINSON: There’s nothing that scares people more than modern opera. Robinson is the stage director for San Diego Opera’s Nixon in China. He originated this production in 2004 at the opera theater of St. Louis and he says, fear not. JAMES ROBINSON: This music is so upbeat, so interesting, so accessible, so rich with different American styles, there’s nothing depressing about it there’s nothing painful about it and I think that’s what makes it special and audiences are constantly surprised when they see Nixon in China the first time just how much they enjoy it after they have experienced it. Maria Kanyova is the soprano singing the role of Pat Nixon. MARIA KANYOVA: The gratification of doing new opera is that we are kind of creating history ourselves by doing that and this opera happens to be a very important American opera in the repertoire of American opera. Robinson says John Adams composed Nixon in China in 1987 with a libretto by Alice Goodman. JAMES ROBINSON: I actually find taking on a modern piece like this to be very liberating because there’s not a long tradition of productions behind it so there wasn’t a lot of baggage. But Tricky Dick Nixon and his legacy do carry some baggage. Robinson says the opera chooses to document and celebrate Nixon’s trailblazing 1972 trip to China. It also looks to the role the media played in it. CLIP Telecommunications has broadcast your message into space… JAMES ROBINSON: Most of us actually saw that event on television The conceit of the production is that because most of us viewed it that way, the television sets are kind of like our point of entry into the telling of the story. TV monitors are omnipresent on stage and constantly feed audiences a montage of images. JAMES ROBINSON: I think there are some things that it comments on: the power of the visual media, the whole trip to China was carefully orchestrated television event in history. CLIP News, news, it’s primetime in the USA. JAMES ROBINSON: And when they were putting the whole trip to China together they were very much aware that everything was timed so that back home you could see it in prime time. And I think that type of highly choreographed and orchestrated event is something that still goes on in politics today. \ MARIA KANYOVA: When we watch political people I think there is a curiosity about them. Maria Kanyova says the opera portrays Pat Nixon is an ingenious manner MARIA KANYOVA: There’s this wonderful humanitarian quality to her. Sometimes she speaks outside of that box of her first lady role but interestingly enough it’s still within the confines of her humanitarian beliefs. JAMES ROBINSON: I think in many ways the creators of this opera had a real soft spot for her and she has one of the most beautiful moments in the entire show when she’s sitting in the audience witnessing Madame Mao’s creation and Pat is so moved by it and troubled by the ballet that she has an out of body experience and jumps onstage and wants to put an end to the horrible things that are going on. Robinson says the opera is not a slave to history or to narrative conventions. JAMES ROBINSON: : I think this is a quintessentially American opera, it’s not necessarily a documentary, it’s sort of a fantasy… I think of Nixon in China as being a wildly theatrical opera without being a traditionally narrative opera and that’s what makes it very exciting. MARIA KANYOVA: You will definitely walk away thinking wow, that was an incredible experience musically, that was an incredible experience theatrically, because again it’s sometimes over the top, it’s got everything, it’s got realism, it’s something over the top, it’s got the ballet, it’s got the wonderful singing, it’s kind of like a rock opera with the synthesizer you couldn’t ask for more in the experience of going to an opera. And it reveals how scary good modern opera can be. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 changed international relations forever. You’d expect to find it in the history books but you might be surprised to see it as the inspiration for a modern opera.

"Nixon in China's" director and soprano explain why a modern opera can be a scary and exciting thing.

James Robinson is the stage director of "Nixon in China" and he originated the production opening tonight at San Diego Opera when he was at the Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2004.

"There’s nothing that scares people more than modern opera, those two words together," Robinson said as he waited for the orchestra dress rehearsal to start on Wednesday. "So I would say fear not, this music is so upbeat, so interesting, so accessible, so rich with different American styles, there’s nothing depressing about it there’s nothing painful about it."

Maria Kanyova originated the role of Pat Nixon with Robinson.

"The gratification of doing new opera is that we are kind of creating history ourselves by doing that and this opera happens to be one of the very important American operas in the repertoire of American opera. As we know of operas 'Boheme,' 'Traviata,' all those operas at that moment when they were first written and done, I’m sure that singers felt pretty much the same way, what an incredible honor with such talented composers to be the one to give life to the opera and that’s precisely what we’re doing with 'Nixon in China,'" Kanyova said.

"I actually find taking on a modern piece like this to be very liberating because there’s not a long tradition of productions behind it so there wasn’t a lot of baggage," Robinson said. "Frequently, with operas, say you’re doing 'Tosca' or 'Butterfly' or 'Figaro' or works that are very well known to people, there are hundreds if not thousands of performances and productions, and you are always going to be compared to that. So it’s very liberating to be doing an opera that people don’t have any familiarity with. Their expectations are kind of wide open."

The opera, composed by John Adams in 1987 with a libretto by Alice Goodman, looks to Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972 as the starting point for it's story that blends fact and fantasy.

"'Nixon in China' is an opera that documents, celebrates, Nixon’s trip to China in the early 70s," Robinson explained. "And most of us actually saw that event on television. The conceit of the production is that because most of us viewed it that way, the television sets are kind of like our point of entry into the telling of the story and that serves as a kind of a kinetic, propulsive background to this very kinetic, propulsive opera."

"I think there are some things that it comments on like the power of the visual media," Robinson said. "The whole trip to China was carefully orchestrated television event in history. And when they were putting the whole trip to China together they were very much aware that everything was timed so that back home you could see it in prime time."

At one point, Nixon sings about "news, news, news, it's primetime in the USA" as a family comes out on stage sitting and eating and watching TV.

TVs figure prominently in the look of this production.

"I think that type of highly choreographed and orchestrated event is something that still goes on in politics these days," Robinson said.

"When we watch political people I think there is a curiosity about them, what were they like, what were they thinking during certain moments, what were they thinking while they were in China? What did they think of this ballet as it was happening," Kanyova said.

Pat Nixon has some key scenes in the opera according to Robinson.

"I think in many ways the creators of this opera had a real soft spot for her and she has one of the most beautiful moments in the entire show when she’s sitting in the audience witnessing Madame Mao’s creation and Pat is so moved by it and troubled by the ballet that she has an out of body experience and jumps onstage and wants to put an end to the horrible things that are going on [on stage]," he said.

"There’s this wonderful humanitarian quality to her," Kanyova said. "Sometimes she speaks outside of that box of her first lady role but interestingly enough it’s still within the confines of her humanitarian beliefs."

"I think of Nixon in China as being a wildly theatrical opera without being a typically narrative opera. Not a traditionally narrative opera, and that’s what makes it very exciting," Robinson said.

San Diego Opera’s "Nixon in China" opens tonight at the Civic Theater and runs through March 22.

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