I’ve loved Nixon in China from the time I curiously listened to a highlights recording, and John Adams became one of my favourite contemporary composers at its opening chorus. Opera Victoria’s exquisite production has confirmed its place as a masterpiece of 20th century art and loudly hinted that the best opera in Australia is not being made by our national company.
The opera is based on President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Nixon dubbed his visit “the week that changed the world” and brought his wife, Pat, National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger (who organised the visit secretly and is the only character still alive), and the American press corps with him. While this would be a nothing story today (unless maybe Obama went to North Korea), it was the first time in 25 years that the west had seen China – one fifth’s of the world’s population had been hidden – and this first term president knew that he was making history.
Nixon continued to make history and is remembered more for the Watergate tapes than what was achieved by the visit to China, as Mao Tse-tung and his wife Chiang Ch’ing are now mostly remembered mostly for the atrocities they supported.
The last time Australia saw a Nixon in China was 1992 when the Adelaide Festival presented Peter Sellars’s original 1987 production, which he created hand-in-hand with Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, even if they often disagreed. Sellars re-created this production in 2011 for the New York Met (seen here in cinemas), so most familiarity with the work comes from his productions. Opera Victoria have a budget about the size of the Met’s shoe budget, so director Roger Hodgman and his creators had to make very different artistic choices.
Designer Richard Roberts simplifies the world with a set that’s symbolic rather than a reflection of the photos of the time. A huge red curtain is the backdrop for most of the action, with Esther Marie Hayes’s costumes adding the historical placement.
This relative simplicity allows for a more contemporary reading of the work and without being tied so tightly to living memory (all I remember of 1972 was getting a baby brother), there are moments that are so much stronger when seen from now. There’s Nixon’s singing about the mystery of “news” and his amazement at the satellite technology that lets the whole world watch and listen. Mao’s talking about liking right wing politicians and the “facism” of the extreme left could be an opinion piece today, and Pat’s dismay at a jade elephant not being one of a kind came before “Made in China” was printed on so much of our stuff.
However, without knowledge of the history, Act 1 is especially confusing and would benefit from something as simple as a projection of date and place. (I spent the interval explaining it to friends.) The work isn’t about the historical truth, but just knowing when and where we are helps an audience to stop looking for those clues and relax into the real truth of the work.
Much of it’s truth – historical and emotional – is in the remarkable libretto by Alice Goodman, which is readable by itself. Much of her libretto is based on transcripts, so it’s easy to think that it’s what really happened, but she researched from Nixon’s personal letters to the insomnia that plagued Chou En-Lai’, and this knowledge adds such a strong reality to piece that even the imagined scenes feel like they must be real. The genius of the work is that it takes us from what the world saw into the heads and hearts of the characters. This lets Nixon and co sing what they actually said, while we also hear what they may have been thinking.
Act I’s three scenes open on an empty airfield outside Peking where a chorus of Red Army Guards recite from Mao’s Red Book and build into a glorious crescendo of anticipation as the plane lands and Nixon appears at the door to wave and create one of the most iconic images of 1972 and his presidency. This act is based on the first day in China, taking the president from his airport meeting with Premier Chou En-lai to a meeting with Mao and ending with a banquet toasting peace and everything else as the drinks keep flowing.
Act II’s two scenes begins with Pat’s visits to hospitals, factories and schools and ends with a performance of a revolutionary ballet devised by Chiang Ch’ing. As the story moves from the international and political to the social, Pat becomes more and more enamoured by China until she’s shattered by the images and attitudes of the ballet and Madame Mao.
Act III’s one scene is the last day of the visit and is a complete imagining by the composer and librettist that moves into the private rooms and imagined thoughts of the characters.
But the history and story of the piece are not what make it so amazing. After all, this is an opera and Adams’s composition is unforgettable. I don’t know enough about music to explain why his music works, but I know that it’s full of conflict and discord and confusion that lets you feel the emotions of the characters, and when it comes together in harmony, you can’t help but soar with it.
And great composition needs great musicians and singers. Conductor Fabian Russell creates a sound that celebrates and understands the role of every note and it’s ridiculous to even consider faulting the cast who have created their characters from the music rather than the recorded historical personas.
Andrew Collis’s Kissinger knows he’ll never be the centre of attention, even if he’s the most worthy. Mao’s trio of secretaries (Sally-Anne Russell, Dimity Shepherd and Emily Bauer-Jones) support their emperor in public, but know he’s a just a man, as Bradley Daley lets Mao be a weakening man trying to hold onto his greater-than-life image. And his wife, Eva Jinhee Konh, is an angry and determined and her coloratura aria, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung”, almost steals the show. (A friend of mine saying that she must have sung an H.)
Then there’s the lyric soprano of Tiffany Speight as Pat Nixon, who brings a sympathy and reality to Pat that’s heartwarming and painful. And Christopher Tonkin has a similar approach to Chou En-lai, as a man who knows he’ll be forgotten by history and can see the myth making going on around him (and has a tone to his voice that makes me want to hear a lot more of him).
Finally, there’s Barry Ryan as Nixon. If you’ve heard James Maddalena sing Nixon (he created the role and has sung it all over the world), it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Nixon – until Barry Ryan opens his mouth. His Nixon is bold and nervous and hides his fears as he’s privately overwhelmed. It’s a stunning performance.
There are only four performances of Nixon in China. Two have gone, but there’s still Tuesday and Thursday this week. It’s sad to think that there are so few performances, but I like to think that it’s made enough impact to ensure that it’s seen again.
And while you book for Nixon, get your tickets for Opera Victoria’s next show. On 20 June Sunday in the Park with George opens. Sondheim fans are squealing with joy and so should everyone else because this is one of Sondheim’s best works and if we can trust this company with John Adams, we can trust them with Sondheim. And let’s hope that there’s more of both composers in future programs. I don’t think we’ve had a Dr Atomic (Adams) in Australia and I wasn’t living in Melbourne when Roger Hodgman directed A Little Night Music (Sondheim) for the MTC, so it must be time to let him do it again.