A Stunning Achievement — 'Nixon in China'

By Henry C. Mayer

There's always more to opera than ear can hear or eye can see. That was especially true for John Adams' "Nixon in China," staged by Indiana University's School ofMusic on February 19.

Some examples: John Adams' music and Alice Goodman's libretto.

There is conductor Jan Harrington but also stage director David Morelock and set designer C. David Higgins. Louisville Music News talked with Higgins.

What were the main difficulties in putting on this opus?

"There has been only one other production — the one staged by Houston Grand Opera at the Kennedy Center (October 22, 1987). Fortunately for us, it had been televised and stored on video tape. So we decided to go our own way. We wanted our production to have a monumental look; after all, the event was one of the most significant cultural and political events of this century. We also decided to present it with a sense of history and give it the atmosphere of a documentary.

"So we scanned the holdings of the National Archives and found 85 photographs from the actual event. We manipulated and re-photographed them, making in all 250 slides. We decided to use blown-up photographs of the actual events on each side of the stage to complement the scenes as the action unfolded.

"We were determined to make it realistic. So for the arrival scene we constructed a three-dimensional plane of plywood and canvas; that took two months to build it. Then next to it as it taxied onto the runway on the stage, we inserted the usual descending ladder one uses at airports.

"We put in at solid week of rehearsals."

There is something uniquely daunting about putting on an opera whose characters would be familiar to the audience. This opera has six principals: Richard and Pat Nixon; Chairman Mao and his wife; Premier Chou En-lai and Secretary of State Kissinger. Unlike most operas, this one, according to Higgins, has only one number which resembles an aria. That piece, titled "This Is Prophetic." sung by Pat Nixon (portrayed exquisitely by Carissa Casbon), was nothing less than a triumph. She gave us a Pat Nixon as a person in her own right. Equally impressive was Susan Swaney as Madame Mao, especially in her stunning number "I am the wife of Chairman Mao." Several times the score called for her to hit a high D and each time she did it well. Adams requires his singers to wear mikes and that makes vigorous demands on them.

The men seemed to require more of a forte for acting than singing. This was especially true of Andrew Hendricks' portrayal of Nixon. This observer felt that Royce Blackburn's Chou En-lai was more impressive than David Trent's Chairman Mao. But one should not overlook that during the meeting with Nixon, Mao was very ill. Yet his powers of intellect and sheer realism left Nixon in awe and with a touch of anxiety about the outcome of the meeting. The Chinese sought to put Kissinger in his place and that seems tn have been the aim of the original producer, Peter Sellers, composer Adams and librettist Goodman.

Adams' music is hard to characterize accurately. A Houston Grand Opera representative opined, "the music is repetitive yet curiously elusive." This may well reect the dual cultures which came together. Adams also made use of several elements of contemporary music such as the fox trot, the big band, easy listening and a Glenn Miller-style saxophone quartet. Though a serious work, "Nixon In China" is not without humor and one observer noted this was especially true of exchanges between Nixon and Kissinger.

The program notes were helpful but it was somewhat startling to read "Chairman Mao was probably the closest thing to Plato's philosophical king that this world will ever see."

That is something of an overstatement since Plato gave us a noble view of our humanity while Mao was sadistic to the point of being savage.