March 2, 2012

Lyric Opera brings ‘Nixon in China’ to KC

James Maddalena figures he owes the 37th president of the United States. Most significantly, the role of Richard Nixon in the groundbreaking John Adams opera “Nixon in China” became, literally, the role of a lifetime for the celebrated baritone.

James Maddalena figures he owes the 37th president of the United States.

Most significantly, the role of Richard Nixon in the groundbreaking John Adams opera “Nixon in China” became, literally, the role of a lifetime for the celebrated baritone.

He played the role in the 1987 world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, and he has played Nixon more than 100 times since. Maddalena will play him again when the Lyric Opera production opens Saturday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

But Maddalena owes Nixon in another way.

“I graduated from high school in 1972,” Maddalena said. “Because of when my birthday is, I was 17 when I graduated high school, and I was too young to be drafted. I had to register for the draft, but by the time I turned 18 Nixon had abolished the draft.”

Indeed, Nixon was and remains a complex and often contradictory historical figure — shrewd, smart, politically astute and tough-minded, but also paranoid, delusional, sometimes comically inept and emotionally vulnerable.

He was, among other things, a politician who rose in the ranks of the Republican Party as a rabid anti-Communist but who as president withdrew American troops from the Vietnam War. And, the same year Maddalena graduated from high school, Nixon became the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China and establish relations with the most populous Marxist state on the planet.

Maddalena said his approach to the role in 1987 was pretty much as it is today: He immerses himself in all available information about Nixon.

“I did a lot of research,” he said. “I read everything I could get my hands on, and there’s quite a bit about Richard Nixon. And I have vivid memories of watching him on TV.

“What I found really useful is that beautiful middle section of each biography where there’s all those black-and-white photos. And photos I think are so much better than video because you can study that frozen thought behind the eyes, you know. And if you look at many different photographs you can begin to develop a gestural vocabulary and to put it all together.

“Nixon is great because although he was famous for being a great poker player during the war, he had the worst poker face of any politician I’ve seen in my life. His emotions were just right out there in public. As a matter of fact, he made a comment once that he only really ever cries in public, which I thought was really amazing.”

So Maddalena just keeps doing homework.

“It gets harder to sing the older I get,” he said with a laugh. “But every time you do it you try to go a little deeper into the character. And there’s always more tapes being released, there’s always more stuff.”

Once disdained,it’s now a classic

There had never been an opera quite like “Nixon in China” in 1987. In many ways it seemed a radical, audacious departure from opera conventions.

Shaped by avant-garde director Peter Sellars and featuring a more or less minimalist score by Adams and an eloquent, psychologically complex rhyming libretto by Alice Goodman, the opera strove to find poetry in the mundane, power in unstated sentiment and intimate character-driven drama within historical grandeur. The work is also imbued with a wry sense of humor.

Dismissed initially by some — but not all — critics as pretentious and musically limited, “Nixon in China” is now considered a classic.

“This is referred to rather lazily by some journalists as ‘another CNN opera,’ and it’s exactly the opposite,” Maddalena said. “So many people said, ‘Well, this is a comedy, right? Nixon in China?’ But John calls it a heroic opera. That’s his idea of it. It’s really classic operatic fare. East meets West, you know.”

Director Michael Cavanaugh said “Nixon in China” is in no way a documentary.

“It has documentary aspects,” he said. “We visit this famous event, but only as a jumping off place.”

Nixon’s trip, made possible largely by national security adviser Henry Kissinger laying the groundwork through secret negotiations with the Chinese, signaled a momentous change. It led to formal diplomatic relations and caught this country’s other Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, off balance.

And it planted the seed for trade and the rise of China today — a weird hybrid economy of one-party Communist rule and market capitalism.

But although we tend to see the U.S. as “advanced” and the China of the 1970s as “primitive,” Cavanaugh said that wasn’t necessarily a view held within China. China, after all, was a 5,000-year old civilization. The United States had been around a scant 200 years.

“To this day that pervades a lot of Chinese thinking,” Cavanaugh said. “They don’t call it the Middle Kingdom for nothing. It’s the center of the world.

“And (despite) this notion that the United States has sort of stood at the top of the pile since World War II in terms of western civilization, nothing’s changed for China. Chinese history is like Japan’s. It’s often looking inward. Occasionally the borders open up and it has a more international approach, and then it turns isolationist again.”

Complex and compelling music

Ward Holmquist, the Lyric’s artistic director, is excited to be conducting Adams’ score, in part because his professional relationship with the work began with the premiere production. He was a vocal coach and assistant conductor with the Houston Grand Opera.

The music can’t be pigeonholed. Indeed, Adams was once described as a minimalist bored by minimalism.

“I fell in love with every creative aspect of this work,” Holmquist said. “I felt like I played an important, small role in bringing an important American opera to the public. It was fascinating and exciting to be involved in a brand new work. The happy thing is that this is a piece that 25 years later is getting lots of attention.”

It was just last year that “Nixon in China” finally made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Maddalena performed Nixon, and Richard Paul Fink played Kissinger, a role Fink will repeat for the Lyric.

And in 2010, Cavanaugh directed a heralded production of the piece in Vancouver. The Lyric, in fact, is using the sets Erhard Rom designed for the Vancouver production.

“It’s a watershed American opera written in a truly American style of music,” Holmquist said. “He makes no attempt to sound Chinese or ethnic. It sounds American. John Adams is one of those incredibly gifted composers who can assimilate different styles and synthesize them and come up with his own voice. I am utterly in love with the music of this opera.”

It’s also a challenging piece for conductors, singers and musicians.

“First of all, there are a lot of meter changes,” he said. “I think a conductor (once) told me he thought there were 1,600 meter changes in the first two acts alone. So it’s a challenge just to learn the music.

“But in John Adams there is an effect that translates even to a public that doesn’t known about this music. There’s a compelling, fluctuating rhythm that underscores the text and the way he sets it for the voice. The end result is quite remarkable and energized. There are sections of the score that have a decidedly rock-like feel.”

The trained opera singers are accustomed to singing without amplification, but in the case of “Nixon in China” they’ll wear mics, which Holmquist said was important to create the “aural environment” Adams wanted. In addition to a symphonic orchestra, the score requires a saxophone quartet and three keyboards, including one that sounds like a conventional piano and another as a source of electronic sounds.

“The sound he was searching for is not just acoustic,” Holmquist said. “There is a certain electronic, enhanced aura to the sound. He didn’t want it necessarily to sound like a rock show, but there is a certain punch or power he was going for that I find incredibly effective and interesting and forward-looking.”

The Lyric production will employ the customary supertitles. Maddalena recalled that Sellars forbade supertitles in the original production. But Maddalena said the libretto is so thematically rich and poetic that supertitles are essential to “Nixon.” Without the written word, he said, the choral sections would be “impenetrable,” and even in the arias the meaning is lost if the listener questions what he or she just heard.

“Our diction (in 1987) was impeccable, but it doesn’t matter with Alice’s libretto,” he said.

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