John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” which will be presented at McCarter Theater on Sunday, June 23 and 30, as the centerpiece of this year’s Princeton Festival, is a very interesting case. While its subject matter is necessarily political — U.S. President Richard M. Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China that served to reestablish diplomatic ties between the two countries after nearly a quarter century’s silence — the opera itself is not, at least in the way one might expect.
Nixon has been an easy target over the years, and in fact when the opera’s first director, Peter Sellars, first approached Adams with the idea, the composer thought it had to be a joke. In the end much of the opera’s power comes from the creators’ decision to present the material straight, to play fair with all of the event’s participants, and to try to allow everything and everyone to speak for themselves.
“I understand many people have preconceived opinions about Richard Nixon and that time, which they may remember very well,” says Richard Tang Yuk, the festival’s artistic director, who will conduct both Princeton performances. “The opera doesn’t really deal with the politics. It’s more philosophical. It’s also very entertaining, and there are some very funny moments. But it’s really an opera that makes us think about what we spend our time on this planet doing, and what kind of change we affect, and what we do and how it affects other people.”
Any kind of overt political statement, artistic or otherwise, about the state of contemporary politics is bound to elicit strong emotions and polarized opinions. Adopting an objective approach was probably the best decision the creators could have made. The opera’s Princeton revival will follow suit.
“Nixon in China” may provide a rare opportunity to engage audiences with a subject from our own time, or comparatively close to it, but Tang Yuk emphasizes that the opera was not programmed as any kind of commentary on the current political scene. “We have been planning this opera for four years, long before the current administration in the White House,” he says.
Politics in opera is nothing new, of course. Witness, as cases in point, Giuseppe Verdi’s perpetual dance around the censors, even as he composed works set in distant historical periods, or the uneasiness with which the aristocracy viewed Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” based on an incendiary farce of Pierre Beaumarchais that positions its antics against a backdrop of class struggle. “Figaro” was given its debut at a time when the world was about to teeter, like so many heads from a guillotine, into the Age of Revolution.
Another potential reservation, easily assuaged, may be the nature of the music itself.
“If someone is not familiar with ‘Nixon in China,’ they may just think, oh it’s a modern opera,” Tang Yuk says. “Many people think ‘modern opera’ and they think atonality. In fact, ‘Nixon in China’ is very tonal. It’s based on triadic harmony. Of course, the opera is based on repeated figures. It could be a rhythmic figure or a melodic figure, heard in various permutations. But there’s so much rhythmic variety throughout, it just sweeps you along. It really propels the whole thing from beginning to end.”
In an interview granted to Opera Quarterly in 1996, the composer singles out 1940s-style big band music as a primary source of inspiration. “I asked myself, ‘What kind of music would the Nixons have listened to? To what music would they have fallen in love?’ And the answer seemed obvious: white swing music of the 1940s. Glenn Miller or something similar. So I used what was essentially a big band for the pit orchestra: four saxophones, lots of brass, a trap set, etc. And to this I added strings, some other winds, and a synthesizer. It was an orchestra that allowed me to access that big-band sound but also provided the possibility of real power and thrust whenever it was required.”
Adams was also interested in exploring how contemporary political events like those portrayed in the opera can come to assume almost mythic significance. Previous stagings have tended to go out of their way to recreate all the high points of Nixon’s visit, as documented in contemporary footage and photographs, captured and disseminated by the media — the iconic handshake with Chou En Lai, for example. At the same time, Adams’ work on the project allowed him to regard Nixon, whom he confesses he had previously “intensely disliked,” as a more rounded a human being.
In contrast to that earlier, documentary approach, director Steven LaCosse and his production designer, Jonathan Dahm Roberston, are aiming for something a little more abstract.
“We have projection and video and lighting, and we’re really tearing the text apart to figure out what it is going on in their heads,” LaCosse says. “A lot of times the characters are saying one thing but thinking something else. The scenery and staging will reflect how they’re really feeling inside, or what’s really happening, or what has happened, or what will happen, or might happen.”
For example, they’ve been developing a motif that involves latticework as a visual cue to help tie everything together.
“It’s this idea that communism was very ordered and very structured and everybody did the same thing every day and felt the same way. So the latticework is intact at the beginning, and at times it begins to morph or lose its way or go in a different direction. We’re using that as a kind of a metaphor for the whole piece.
“This opera is the hardest thing I’ve ever directed, because it’s so psychological,” he says. “Finding ways to make it the most engaging for an audience has been very challenging for me. But that’s what I enjoy about it. The libretto is so non-specific in terms of stage direction that you can pretty much do anything with the production, so we’re having a great time with it.”
“Nixon in China,” given its debut in Houston in 1987, holds the distinction of being one of the few operas written in the past half-century to have actually entered the standard repertoire. Now 32 years old, it depicts events that took place now nearly 50 years ago. It’s a testament to the composer and his collaborators (Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman) that they were able to get so much “right” at a distance of only 15 years.
“It was so of its time, and it was so right,” LaCosse adds. “I mean, it was Adams’ first opera. He kind of got it right that very first time. The subject is very interesting. It’s the kind of piece that challenges the audience. And it doesn’t tell you what to come away with. You have to kind of come away with what you come away with.”
Adams’ musical syntax has its roots in a style known as minimalism, a once-experimental approach that drew its inspiration in part from the repetitions and slowly shifting patterns encountered in some “world music.” In its strictest application, minimalism can come across as a kind of hypnotic drone.
But Adams is not one to be hemmed in by strictures. “Nixon in China” is an eclectic buffet of Stravinskyian neoclassicism, fin-de-siecle sentiment, and good old-fashioned American drive. Indeed the opera is colored by a kind of vitality, if not precisely the vocabulary, characteristic of American popular music. Furthermore, the music is not “trapped in its own head,” as it were, but always mindful of the actions and reflections of the characters on stage.
“If people think about minimalist music, they usually think of Philip Glass, but this is not that,” LaCosse says. “The orchestra has the rhythm, but on top of that are melodies. The arias are melodies. You actually can remember them when you listen to them. That’s why I think it was successful. Because he took that idea of minimalism, but he still had that lyricism of the voice on top of it.”
The choice of repertoire is an exciting one on the part of Tang Yuk and the Princeton Festival. For the first time in several seasons, the festival is rolling the dice on a “destination” opera, one that stands a good chance of drawing in opera enthusiasts from well beyond the Princeton area.
“This is our 15th anniversary season, so I wanted to do something that would be different, something I thought would make a mark, or a splash,” Tang Yuk says. “Anybody can see ‘Madama Butterfly’ or ‘Cosi fan tutte’ in their own town, but you don’t get to see something like ‘Nixon in China’ very often. So we’re very excited about it.
“Many contemporary operas, they have a premiere, sometimes a commission, sometimes a co-production with several companies, and they run for a few performances, and then you don’t hear about them again. ‘Nixon in China’ has traveled all around the world, and it has stayed in the repertory. So that says something about the merit of the piece.”
Adams, now 72, is regarded as one of the foremost living American composers. He was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003 and has served as creative chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009.
The cast for the Princeton Festival’s “Nixon in China” will include Sean Anderson as Richard Nixon, Rainelle Krause, as Pat Nixon, Cameron Schutza as Chairman Mao, Teresa Castillo as Madame Mao, Joseph Barron as Henry Kissinger, John Viscardi as Premier Chou En Lai, and Liz Culpepper, Emily Marvosh, and Edith Dowd as the three secretaries. The lighting design is by Norman Coates, and the costume design is by James Schuette.
“It’s quite a fascinating work,” Tang Yuk says of the opera. “It’s layered. Almost every line of the libretto is a metaphor that has multiple meanings. You have to hear it or see it several times to really appreciate the full extent of the craftsmanship and the beauty of it.”
“For a festival of this size to produce this piece is amazing,” LaCosse adds. “Everybody is just blown away by the fact that we’re able to do it. It’s a big deal for the festival and for the community, and people should come and take advantage of that, because this is something that is not going to come around again.”
Nixon in China, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Saturday, June 23, 3 p.m., and Sunday, June 30, 3 p.m. $45 to $150 and student rush half-price (ID required). www.princetonfestival.org. Tickets: www.mccarter.org.