Laura Decher Wayte on Singing Madame Mao for the Eugene Opera’s ‘Nixon in China’

Laura Decher Wayte, soprano, who sings Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) in Nixon in China March 16 & 18 in Eugene, Oregon
Laura Decher Wayte is a soprano who lives in Eugene. She teaches at the UO’s School of Music, and she performs in recital and occasionally in operas, including the Eugene Opera’s Don Giovanni and this week’s Nixon in China.

I ran into her at rehearsal the other day and did a phone interview with her today.

Suzi Steffen: So what are your thoughts about presenting Nixon in China in Eugene?

Laura Decher Wayte: I’m more and more excited about it, in terms of the whole project. When I first heard we were going to do it, I was excited to do my part, but I thought the piece itself … well, I wondered if it would be OK for Eugene. I think more and more that it is an excellent choice.

And how did that change? Why?
I can see that as a company, we can handle it. It was lovely to have all the build-up through the university to bring more community members into the idea of it so it becomes interesting to more than to your traditional group of opera aficionados.

Madame Mao is an … interesting … character. How do you play this woman? What kind of research did you do?

I did read about a third of the biography written by Roxane Witca, who came to give a lecture, and while that was fascinating, it doesn’t necessarily inform the part because [Jiang Qing] isn’t an historically based part in its emotional details.

What we have to do as singers is use the score and text a lot in a nonhistorical way. We have to think of it as its own document that has its own goal of portraying the confusion of being in power [when you’re] a human being.

Let’s talk about what she’s feeling during the opera, and what she’s feeling during the famous aria ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung’.

At any given moment in the opera, it’s obvious she’s either frustrated or feeling rejected or depressed by her history or the inflexibility of the people around her to do what she says. It’s easy to portray those kind of blanket emotions; I don’t find that challenging. What’s hard to do is to tie it together to make sense. But there’s a gift in this opera; it’s supposed to be a more impression of things, it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense.

What would you say to people who have a hard time with the story arc? I mean, in that it’s not a traditional opera story, with a Romantic arc or even much of a narrative arc?

Well, what I would say is they shouldn’t think of it as a story that’s supposed to parallel history but that it’s more of a fictionalized history. We’re using the structure of history to examine ourselves as humans, not to examine a particular moment in history. It’s no about would Mao have ever said that in real life – those kinds of questions I don’t find interesting. It’s more about the rhythms of humanity, the ways we expand and contract our societies.

How well should people know the opera before they come?

The thing I think that’s hard about this piece is that it’s so textually dense, and the librettist does not give away the meaning behind what she’s written very easily. No matter how much you know it, you’re going to get different levels of something from it. If you go to it with this being your only exposure, you will let go of struggling for plot and listen to the way the music manipulates us, the way the text makes us have thoughts that are not a linear story.

You allow your brain to let go and enjoy what happens because of what it’s being exposed to. But if you can prepare for it, whatever you do is going to help. There’s a lot of little references in the text to history, to different characters in history, but if you don’t know them, there’s still plenty.

I compare it to, I used to read a lot of Shakespeare, and at first it was work. I’d have to grab out a dictionary to figure out what was happening. Then I decided, I’m just going to read – and it became fun at a totally different level.

Because you’re relaxed?

Yes, because you’re relaxed.

What have you heard people in the community saying about Nixon in China?

I’ve heard lots of people say they’re interested in coming. I think it’s worthy of commenting on that I’ve heard more people say they’re interested in coming than in the other work I’ve been involved in with this company for. It’s new, it’s different, it’s not just Don Giovanni again – Don Giovanni, it’s a great thing; my dad would see Don Giovanni 50 times, but … [We both made noises of assent, and that was that.]

How do you feel about singing in English?

I love it; I absolutely love it. I love singing in the other languages as well, especially the ones I know, but I’ve lately been feeling frustration with having a language barrier between my work and what my audience can hear of the work I’ve done. I love that I can put all kinds of meaning into a word and somebody can actually get it. With German and French, I do all of this work, and I have so much relationship with the text, and I feel frustrated because nobody’s getting a portion of what I’m putting into it.

And on that note, do you think people will read the supertitles less and pay attention to the stage?

We had breakfast with Peter Sellars last week. He was saying that when he was younger, before there were supertitles, he would go to a foreign opera and let go of comprehension and be affected by the music, and he really misses that.

Do you think Nixon in China is a complex work, or does it feel that way just because it’s newer, and maybe we don’t know the music as well?

I’ve been asked that a lot. My answer has been that the music is that hard; it’s not that complex – I can learn any page easily. But the problem comes when you have to put it together. There’s the lack of an overarching structure to any moment. There’s not a coda, for instance. It doesn’t have all these labels we have for the way music feels and flows – that is gone. We all were looking forward to being staged because that would give us structure and put the structure into our bodies and into our brains where it didn’t exist musically.

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