On Saturday, Eric and I plucked up our courage, braved the police, and actually visited Long Beach. We had tickets, you see—tickets I’d been waiting 12 years for.
When I was in high school, I commuted into Berkeley twice a week for a class at Cal on Chinese history. I would occasionally delay my trip home with a sidetrack to the gorgeous old Berkeley Public Library, where I found the first CD section of any library in my experience. It was like skooB dlO srednaeroC darnoC lraC for me in there, dusty, golden-dim, and magical (or at least my memory re-creates it that way). One day I found a box set of something called Nixon in China, and I figured it was the serendipity that often strikes in places chock-full of books: I was taking a Chinese-history class, this was at least partly about China, why not check it out and give it a try?
As it turned out, the opera itself—for it was indeed the sole recording (at the time) of John Adams’s first opera—on the subject of Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, wasn’t all that relevant to the class. But I did have background information on the Cultural Revolution, and on Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, and Zhou Enlai, so in that respect it was a great help. No, instead those three discs introduced me to the man I consider the greatest American composer of “classical” music (we can get into what those quotation marks mean if you really want to). From the day after I first heard the mysterious, solemn opening lines of the opera, I scoured local press and the Internet for mention of a live performance.
For 11 and a half years I checked every opera company in whatever area I lived in, hoping to find Nixon in China listed for their season. (In the meantime, I ended up buying that box set and practically memorizing most of Act I.) I had a close call about two years ago, with an announcement that the opera would receive its Northern California premiere, but that collapsed under suggestive circumstances. Then, one day last fall, out of the mailbag and into my mailbox dropped a promotional card advertising Long Beach Opera‘s brand-new production—the opera’s first performances in the LA area since the first Bush presidency. I got tickets as soon as I could, and then I had to wait another six months for the night. But finally it came.
I had seen most of the original Peter Sellars production on video, and given how much the opera is really about re-presentation (for a capital-T Theory exploration of this, see Peggy Kamuf’s “The Replay’s the Thing”; the short version is that it’s about a self-consciously produced media event, and addresses that with techniques like musical vamps during news-photo tableaux), I was curious how it would be re-presented in a new production. The answer is: successfully, in two opposite ways.
As with any opera, some of the action in Nixon in China is dictated by the score. Adams is justly proud, for example, of the onstage arrival of the Spirit of ’76 (Air Force One), and there is a ballet in the middle of the opera. The stage director has to choose whether to present these moments “literally” or to stylize them. (If I were a stage director, I’d certainly be unable to resist putting an airplane on the stage.) In this production, Peter Pawlik takes a sort of magically realist approach to most of the scenes; a quadrant of the airplane pulls forward out of the backdrop, and there’s a miniature proscenium arch on the stage-within-a-stage for the ballet, and a banquet-hall set. They’re slightly abstracted, but generally realistic and easily understandable. In fact, as the LA Times‘s Chris Pasles points out, Pawlik sets Act III back in the banquet hall rather than in Sellars’s floating-theater-space barracks—a definite improvement on the original. This approach, which I’ll call the literal one, is accomplished very well in the production. The opening, particularly, is beautiful, with blue dawnlight silhouetting the chorus against a scrim to reproduce the misty February morning.
Then in two scenes—Nixon and Kissinger’s meeting with Mao and Zhou, and Pat Nixon’s sightseeing trip—the literal approach goes out the window and a more stylized aesthetic takes over. Compare the new production and the original: This is from LBO’s version of this scene. (There are four of those big red chairs, and please ignore the woeful caption from the OC Register, who might be expected to know a little more about their hometown president than that.) When Mao’s triune secretary deadpans to Pat Nixon in three-part harmony “Here are some children having fun,” a row of wooden children is rolled out with their upraised right arms all attached to one pole, so that a chorister can flick them back and forth in a synchronized flag-waving. The pig whose ear Pat scratches is a cutout side of pork hanging on a rack. It’s quirky, and funny.
And here’s where I get to take the critic’s step back and be judicious yet opinionated. I am usually quite open to abstract stagings; I enjoy the intellectual effort they spark, and personally I find the Verfremdungseffekt enormously productive, when well used. In the scene with Nixon and Mao, for instance, while I didn’t particularly appreciate the way the giant chairs turned the principals into children, I thought the maneuvering of the chairs around the stage (they’re on wheels, pushed around by chorus members) made an exciting counterpoint to and expansion of the political and philosophical sparring in the magnificent libretto, and gave Mao an excellent opportunity to menace and harangue Nixon at one point. The trouble, however, comes in the unevenness that results from alternating between literal and stylized presentations. This production uses a fundamentally inconsistent staging, and because the literal first scene was so thrilling (airplane! On stage!), the stylized second scene was disappointing. But taken separately on their own merits, the stylized thread and the literal thread are equally successful. I’d love to see either one woven through the whole opera, but that’s not so much a complaint as a plea to be embarrassed with riches. When we took our seats, I leaned over to Eric and told him, “This could basically be terrible and I’d probably still love it.” It was great; and I loved it.