If two world leaders shake hands in a forest and no one is televising it, did it really happen? On the 30th anniversary of Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere of Nixon in China (1987), director James Robinson’s renowned production still reflects the age of obsessive media three decades later.
Based on Richard Nixon’s historic six-day visit to China in 1972, Nixon in China is the original brainchild of a genius trifecta, with music by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman and production by Peter Sellars (the same man who brought us Mozart’s Figaro in Trump Tower). The Metropolitan Opera presented the production in 2011 with Adams himself on the conductor’s podium, and it remains an astounding work of art. How do you re-write something that is already so fantastic? (Easy—you don't.)
Robinson’s production is brilliantly new and old at once with its mostly red, white and blue palette. Pat Nixon is still dressed in a historically accurate (and splendid) red coat; Dick is sporting a pressed suit. But on stage, 12 televisions, arranged in two rows of six, add a whole new dimension. As we watch the Nixon’s disembark from the plane, televisions screen the 1972 footage of the scene. A family dressed in iconic '70s garb appears center stage, lit by a bright square of light, with TV trays of microwave platters balanced in front of them. Later, you’ll see them still staring glassy-eyed ahead and shoveling food from Chinese take-out boxes with plastic chopsticks.
Baritone Scott Hendricks, in the title role, boldly assumes Nixon’s persona with flare. His voice is rich and tasteful and his cocksure gestures are absolutely fitting to Nixon’s foibles. His big aria “News” comes quickly in the first act with little time to brace for its acrobatics, and he did not disappoint, though the orchestra covered him for much of it. As Chou En-lai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, baritone Chen-ye Yuan likewise held court, his voice teeming with vivid color and a knack for his character’s idiosyncrasies. Chad Shelton, as Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung, added a lush tenor tone to the first act with the same attention to the albatross of portraying such a weighty political figure.
After a first act dominated by men, the women take over. Soprano Andriana Chuchman, as First Lady Pat Nixon, was all grace and serious talent. Tracy Dahl, in the role of Madame Mao, has one of the hardest arias to sing at the end of this act, superbly leaping in range to high, high notes. Below them, conductor Robert Spano held the foundations of Adams score with expressive precision apart from some balance issues early on.
The second act is wild and strange in the best way, as it brings back ballet to opera—something the art form has forgotten about in past centuries. It’s an interpretation of The Red Detachment of Women, a communist Chinese ballet that premiered in 1964, that begins with a woman chained to a whipping post. Henry Kissinger, who bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi performs with absolute panache, is in the ballet for some wonderful reason as her tormentor, and Pat gets so consternated by the violence that she also runs in at one point. The choreography features defiance with flat hands, planed feet and precise leaps. Solo dancers Kaitlyn Yiu and Evan Copeland, her savior in red, outdid themselves.
After that famous slow motion handshake between Nixon and Mao, emphasized by camera flashes all around, Nixon sings, “History is our Mother,” followed by Mao, who brazenly contradicts him by singing, “History is a dirty sow.” HGO shows both sides of the story here in an opera that remains astonishingly relevant. You can’t help but read between the lines.
Houston Grand Opera's Nixon in China
Thru Jan 28. $15–215. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org