Review: Eugene Opera’s Nixon in China

From the mezzanine at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, just before it started.

I loved the Eugene Opera’s daring, amusing, smart, challenging production of Nixon in China. If I could see it every day for a week, I would.

Sadly for me, that tremendous effort – the rehearsing, the choral practice, the designs, the costumes, the tech rehearsals – ended when the curtain fell at 5:37 on Sunday afternoon, just about three hours after it all began. This is always the case with the Eugene Opera, which produces usually two shows a year (though I’d rank the semi-staged Il Trovatore, the extra show of 2009, up there with the best things I’ve seen in Eugene) with two or three performances of each show. I’ll save for another day my encomiums to the effort, because effort is not all – performance is all, in this case, at least for the audience members who pay $40 to $90 to see the opera. And in this case, the performances were well worth the money.

Once, when I was attending a fabulous arts journalism fellowship right at the beginning of the hemorrhaging of arts journalists from newspapers (we were the canaries in the coal mine; by the time the economy crashed in September of 2008 and then ad revenues crashed along with it, we were mostly long-gone, or a deeply endangered breed), I got schooled by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times for reviewing a Handel opera as if it were theatre instead of opera. After Act I of Nixon in China, the guys sitting behind me said, “It’s more like a play than an opera, isn’t it?” (They didn’t say that after Act III, though, so I don’t know if they were still thinking it.)

Therefore, I know it’s possible that one of the reasons I liked this staging, and the Met’s 2011 HD broadcast staging, of Nixon in China is that the entire thing is more like theatre. It would be a postmodern-ly absurdist play, a play that wings off into poetry – Pat Nixon’s “This is prophetic” aria, more like an incantation, in Act II makes for a sweet, naïve, absurd, lyrically lovely late 20th-century reworking of “Howl” and it reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ ”Emperor of Ice Cream” – and a fully sung play. As music director Andrew Bisantz wrote in the program, “Nixon and his operatic entourage were not meant to be viewed as characters in a music-hall parody; rather, they were to be seen as historical and dramatic archetypes, as in the historical plays of Shakespeare and the operatic representations of ancient history by G.F. Handel.”

Also, I’m a believer in preparing for operas. The music isn’t usually super-duper complex in operas, but a. there’s a lot of it and b. I get very sleepy with music I don’t know well (I mean symphonic music & for that matter, chamber music – not pop/rock/alt so much, because, lyrics and short songs).

And it’s not as if Nixon in China has the advantage of its arias accompanying dramatic scenes in movies – because it’s newer (1987) and in English (that is, not mysterious), it’s not going to accompany a battle scene, or a romantic scene, the way many Italian opera arias do. OK, and it’s also because many people aren’t used to John Adams’ music. I overheard people saying “It was atonal!” or “It had no shape!” during/after the opera – I don’t agree with either analysis, but I understand that if they’re expecting Carmen, that’s not happening. I find Adams’ music plenty tonal – but that’s a whole big discussion I’m not musically qualified enough to have … others welcome to contribute here. If I think of tonality as the music having some central theme, then I can say I did enjoy hearing a theme from the first chorus repeat several times during the opera, the first time my ear has picked that out, probably because it was live and also Bisantz may have emphasized it a bit.

Anyway, I was prepared, particularly for the opening and for “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung,” which is an aria of surpassing weird/wonderfulness. That preparedness helps. Also, I’m patient with performances. I’ve only ever walked out on one performance in my life, a god-awful theatrical production that made me furious with its stupidity, so I guess I’m not one to leave after the first act of an opera (apparently, many people did – which is a shame, as the second act is fabulous).

Musical interlude: I’m listening to this version of “This is prophetic” and smiling as I write this – “Let Gypsy Rose kick off her party shoes … let businessmen speculate further … let the expression on the Statue of Liberty change just a little; let her see what lies inland.” Oh, Pat Nixon! The things you miss in this scene! Such brilliant writing by poet Alice Goodman.

But back to the Eugene Opera’s version, which took a united effort from a rather stunning number of people in and out of Eugene. First of all, the scrim. The gorgeously printed, monumental scrim – I assume designed by scenery designer Peter Beudert – and the light on Nixon (Lee Gregory, whom we’ve seen in Don Giovanni as Leporello and The Marriage of Figaro as Figaro) as he gets changed/dressed in the plane. Speaking of that plane, I’m not sure what happened – I was under the impression there was a plane, but that was from a conversation with Bisantz and opera executive director Mark Beudert before Carmen in December, so anything could have occurred. In this case, it was weird after seeing the Met’s version not to have a plane on stage, but that moment of disappointment went away quickly as Gregory distracted the audience with his smile and waving.

… and I just realized that what I want to do is relive the entire opera as I write this. Not useful, Suzi. FYI, if you want to see the full Houston Opera version from 1987, it’s available on YouTube – in 17 parts – starting here:

So some of my favorite things about this performance and the libretto/score in general:

  • Mark Beudert has a lovely voice! And he was good as Mao. Not even close to frail, the way the usual Mao is played. But I want Mark to sing more and exec less. Well, that’s not true; I think he (with others) has done a superhuman job making the Eugene Opera a going concern again.
  • Ben Goodman of the Eugene Ballet choreographed the piece and danced in the Revolutionary Ballet scene. I am so pleased to see Ben in yet another Eugene performing arts group. Also, he whipped that Eugene Opera chorus into doing tai chi and singing – that was amazing (and no, he didn’t actually use a whip … in the tai chi scene, anyway).
  • The second act, wow. I want to see that second act again and again. Kelly Kaduce, whom we (and the Portland Opera) have enjoyed onstage several times before, didn’t have a Pat Nixon-like wig the way all of the other Pats I’ve seen (on the screen) have, but she made Pat seem like a party-loving, not-too-bright, sweet – and put-upon – woman, and of course, as usual, I enjoyed her voice.

    In the Pat-on-tour scene, she charmed the audience with her ability to interact with the bicyclists, the children … and the pigs (I’m not kidding; that was fun, and as Mark Beudert said in his curtain speech, this was the first time the Eugene Opera had to thank Sweet Briar Farms “for livestock management”). And the juxtaposition of Pat’s wide-eyed attempts to connect to the workers with what they sing when the big elephant’s on the stage … wow. Killer libretto, Alice Goodman.

  • Then Laura Wayte made Chiang Ch’ing/Madame Mao such an impatient, annoyed, strong, intense personality in the ballet scene, not to mention her big “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung” moment.

    Why and how is this such a memorable/stunning/holyshitdidthatjusthappen aria? I don’t entirely know, but damn. The 2011 Met version:

  • The third act was a bit odd. It’s a different staging – as is the entire Eugene production, by (totally cute, not that I’m a strong judge of the men) stage director Sam Helfrich – than the Met’s staging, and I was at first waiting for the beds. Where were the beds? I mean, Peter Sellars talked about the beds being like coffins! I wanted the beds – nNot Kissinger (a befuddledly excellent Michael Gallup), Chou En-lai (Christopher Burchett, whom we’ve seen sing Masetto in Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro), Pat, Dick, Mao and Chiang Ch’ing in a post-party alcoholic funk at separate tables, slumped and out of it and lonely. Which was what we got. WHERE ARE THE COFFINS, SAM? was the thought bubble above my head.

    Then I snapped out of it. I liked this staging. Part of the excellence of the third act (though not all of my companions felt this way or enjoyed that bleakness, trailing off into despair/nothingness) comes from the distracted, isolated, separate, weird, overlapping parts of the libretto. Who’s talking? To whom? Why? Why are they retelling stories they’ve told over and over?

    Well, exactly.

  • I thought the orchestra performed well with this score. I know it’s a monster. When I said back there that usually operas don’t have super-duper complex music, I didn’t mean this opera. At least that’s the impression I got from some of the musicians, and from Bisantz when I briefly spoke to him at rehearsal. It wasn’t perfect, but they did well.
  • Some of the costumes (the secretaries, Pat, Dick, Henry, Mao) were gorgeous. Sometimes the chorus looked like it had simply brought clothes from home, but other times, it was a little more identical. I would have preferred a more similar look for all chorus members, all of the time.
  • Eugene Ballet! I think those dancers were all company members of yours? Well done. Nice collaboration (or just sharing?).
  • As some of you know, the opera just … ends. It’s not triumphal. It’s not big. It trails off. I loved that a lot … and then it took way too long to get the whole cast up there for curtain calls. Hey, if you’re not there in time, too bad. You don’t get to bow. (Unless you’re a principal, of course, in which case … yeah.)

I know some people didn’t like John Adams’ music. In addition, I heard that on Friday night, there was a lot of backstage noise – as in, things crashing around. I say that means not enough rehearsal time (as they are all too aware – and as I suspected, which was why I bought tickets for Sunday). I know that the chorus, though it did its best, occasionally looked sloppy and/or slapdash, even on Sunday. I know that a few scenes were awkwardly staged, at least with the chorus. (I also know that the people behind me and to the right needed to shut the hell up – “Honey, look! THAT’S PAT NIXON!” Yes. Thank you. Arglesmack.)

All of that is fair criticism. But overall, this was a moonshot for the Eugene Opera. Yes, like Nixon, I have to think of the Apollo astronauts .. ahem. Though it may not be reflected in ticket sales, the opera made it to the moon and back. I hope the board sucks it up, finds more sponsors and keeps on going because from this audience member’s point of view, it was well worth the effort.

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