Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Nixon and Mao sing and dance
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Richard Nixon, left, shakes hands with Mao Zedong, right, in the Minnesota Opera production of "Nixon in China." (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Opera)
On Feb. 21, 1972, President Richard Nixon changed the world. He landed in a Beijing airport for a weeklong visit that marked the beginning of normalized relations with China. This monumental event became the setting for John Adams' 1987 opera, "Nixon in China." The Minnesota Opera is presenting a new production of the work over the next two weekends.

St. Paul, Minn. — "Nixon in China" was the first of the "CNN operas" based on recent events. Before the opera premiered, many assumed it was going to be a political spoof, but that's not what composer John Adams and St. Paul-born librettist Alice Goodman had in mind. They wanted to create a heroic opera about the inner lives of the participants in this historic meeting.

"I personally think that it's a much more human opera than a political opera," says director James Robinson. "It's just that these are monumental figures in American history."

Minnesota Opera's production of "Nixon in China" is a new staging that debuted last summer at the Opera Theater in St. Louis. It's the first new U.S. production since the 1987 premiere.

Robinson says the original production received mixed reviews because Adams' minimalist-inspired music was still controversial, and Nixon remained a divisive figure.

Robinson says that after nearly two decades, attitudes have changed.

"It's always funny how public figures can go from being reviled to being revered in a short amount of time," he says. "Today, we know that Nixon wasn't a perfect president by any stretch, but now we look at some of the good things he did and we realize he wasn't as bad as everybody used to think.'"

Richard Nixon's trip to China came after years of mistrust and hostility. The U.S. had no diplomatic relations with China at the time, but the U.S. needed China for leverage against the Soviet Union and to help end the Vietnam War. Political experts have said only Nixon, because of his strong anti-communist reputation, could have made the trip.

The Minnesota Opera cast is made up of singers too young to remember Nixon's visit to China. Robinson says he has to remind them of the trip's importance.

"Now we are actually looking at how profound that event was in 1972," he says. "We look at how powerful China is, and we look at the groundwork that was laid during this trip to China."

Baritone Carlos Archuleta sings the role of Richard Nixon in the production. Born in 1969, he has only a dim recollection of Nixon's presidency, but he admits that it's unnerving playing someone everybody knows, and someone of such magnitude in U.S. history.

In portraying Nixon, he tries to capture a few of the president's mannerisms, such as his jowly scowl and hunched back, but without turning him into a caricature.

"It's a balance you have to achieve without trying to be too much like a cartoon character, doing all of the stock gestures of Nixon, because then it becomes a farce," Archuleta says. "This opera has lasted because the people that have portrayed these characters have not made a mockery of them."

In preparing for their roles, the cast of "Nixon in China" studied documents, films, and television footage. Tenor Simon O'Neill sings the role of Chairman Mao. He says this was an important step for capturing the spirit of these historical figures. He says there's plenty of film of Nixon, but there's only a certain amount of Mao footage.

"I'm just trying to show him on the outside as rather elderly, but on the inside very strong still," O'Neill says.

Even more mysterious is Madam Mao. She made up so many stories about her life that it's difficult to know the truth. Soprano Helen Todd, who plays Madam Mao, describes her as more than the stereotypical bad girl.

"She gets upset quite easily if things aren't going the way that she expects them to go. Her music is extremely high. It's very declamatory. It's on the edge of violence. And it's almost deafening," says Todd. "But she's such a fascinating person, very damaged right from childhood. If you ever crossed her when she was in her 20s, you're basically going to be in prison or killed when you're in your 50s."

John Adams' "Nixon in China" is an opera with no drama. The historical event serves as a setting for a fantasy investigating the inner lives of Nixon, Mao and the others.

It opens with the landing of the president's plane on an airfield outside of Beijing and continues with official banquets, tours and diplomatic meetings.

By the third act, the last night in Beijing after an exhausting week, the characters are in their bedrooms, privately contemplating their lives and wondering what they've achieved.

Music commentator and author Michael Steinberg saw the original production of "Nixon and China," and recently listened to a recording of the opera for the first time in several years. He says the opera has aged well.

"I was just amazed at how moving it was to listen to," Steinberg says. "Some of it was gripping and exciting, like the self-revelations of the characters, even when they're not totally serious -- like Nixon's first aria, when he stops to contemplate on how amazing it is that they've managed to time the landing in Beijing so that it coincides exactly with prime news time in the United States."

Steinberg says he was especially moved by Pat Nixon's aria in the second act.

"She's this poor woman who really didn't do well in the great lottery of life, and things become revealed about her that could never be expressed publicly," says Steinberg.

Director James Robinson says he appreciates the poignancy of the work, and says he's enjoying directing an American opera.

"There's something very refreshing about working on a piece that's in your own language, about historical events that you remember," he says. "I felt like it was easy to get closer to the material somehow. I was very proud to be working on this piece, and there was something very heartwarming about it."

The Minnesota Opera's production of "Nixon in China" runs through May 22 at the Ordway.

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