As someone not very fond of contemporary concert music, and who still doesn’t understand why the opera season here runs from September through November and then comes back in June (Why not start in June and run through November and be done with it in the same year?), it will come as no surprise when I say that I was not particularly looking forward to the long overdue coda to our opera season that was Nixon in China.
Nixon in China is John Adams’ first foray into opera. You might think that Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 is an odd choice for an opera, and you are very, very right. Although I enjoyed the music far more than I expected to, much of the plot was nonsensical, and there was zero dramatic tension.
Act I is fairly straightforward, depicting the arrival of Nixon (Brian Mulligan) at an airfield outside of Peking (Beijing), his initial meeting with Chairman Mao (Simon O’Neill), and the official state dinner at the Great Hall of the People. The opening, with enormous projections of Air Force One (“The Spirit of 76”) flying through the clouds and a chorus singing the praises of the glorious revolution in “Soldiers of heaven hold the sky” and “The people are the heroes now,” was particularly impressive.
While the premise of Act II seemed promising—I knew it featured a ballet performance—it deflated quickly, with an extended sequence featuring Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova). While I liked “I don’t daydream and I don’t look back,” the whole sequence seemed completely out of place and went on for far too long. In the second half, the ballet segments were very confusing as the characters of Kissinger (Patrick Carfizzi) and the Nixons interacted with the dancers they were watching. While Hye Jung Lee was incredible here as the wife of Mao, no one around me had any idea what was going on.
This confusion was only exacerbated in Act III, which depicts the last evening in Peking with everyone rambling on about their thoughts on the distant past. While the libretto was certainly shaky at times during Acts I and II, here is where it went completely off the rails. Clearly, I’m not a fan of modernism, but when I feel I need Cliffs Notes for a contemporary opera in English? That’s a problem.
Ultimately, I was fairly proud that I’ve reached a point where I understood many of the musical references Adams uses, and I get why this is one of the great American operas, I just couldn’t get past the flaws in the libretto. That said, the music was strong enough to have me interested in hearing more by Adams. Although I’m not a fan of contemporary music in general, I enjoyed what he did here, and, as I must remind myself from time to time, attending the world premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls (I was there for Beethoven’s Ninth) was one of my most profound musical experiences ever. Ever.