When I accepted the role of Richard Nixon a few years ago, I knew it was going to be the most challenging assignment of my career. Taking on Nixon in China
, the brilliant opera by John Adams, was a daunting task for so many reasons, but the obstacle that would challenge me most was that of becoming the iconic colossus, Richard Nixon.
I began my journey to Nixon by voraciously educating myself on the details of his life, as well as the specifics of his visit to China in 1972. In my performances, I wanted to go beyond replicating Nixon’s infamous gestures and hunched posture... I needed to understand how he became the man we all knew. I chose to go directly to the source, reading the books Nixon himself authored, including Six Crises (referenced by Mao in Act 1, Scene 2) and RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. I learned a staggering amount from those books. I picked up minutia, like the fact that Nixon’s two front teeth were fake, having been knocked out while playing basketball as a teenager. Discovering that small, but intimate fact helped to formulate how I smile while I’m Nixon, a major component of my characterization. But I also made some huge discoveries, including that much of what Nixon says in Alice Goodman’s amazing, dense libretto are actual quotes from his own writings! I even purchased the original Frost/Nixon interviews... I have watched them so often I now have parts of it memorized. And I spent quite a bit of time researching other subjects presented in the opera, including the subtleties of geopolitics and détente, Communism vs. Marxism and the endlessly mysterious history of post dynastic China, including the specifics of Mao Tse-tung’s brutal rise to power.
Once I had become thoroughly fascinated with Richard Nixon and his life’s work, I decided it was time to take a trip to Nixon’s Graceland: Yorba Linda, CA. It’s the site of his Presidential Library & Museum and also his birthplace. The Museum contains an unbelievable array of personal artifacts from Nixon’s life, including the entire house he was born in, which is on the grounds of the estate. Just next to that small house is the burial place of both Richard and Pat Nixon, their graves side by side. I sat for a while across from their tombstones, grateful to be alone so I could take in the entirety of the moment, creating a searing sense memory. In Act 1, Scene 2 of the opera, as I’m singing the “Fathers and Sons” monologue, I am thinking of Nixon’s own mother and father, and can clearly see the image of his childhood home. I imagine Nixon could have envisioned the same picture whenever he thought of his parents. [Above: The birthplace and home of Richard Nixon. Photo by Brian Mulligan.]
Most times while I am on the stage, I utilize sense or emotional memories to replicate authentic feelings. It’s a principle I learned from Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, which I first encountered while at Juilliard. The idea is simple: draw from past experienced senses and/or emotions as you are performing to bring depth and true feeling to your character. For me, it works. Because Nixon in China was a true story set in modern times, I realized I had a unique opportunity to create a multitude of exact sense memories that could prove invaluable to my portrayal of Nixon. After further thought, I recognized that many of the sense memories I wanted to experience were actually in China. I decided I just had to experience the country for myself. Very quickly, I spoke with my manager, cleared my schedule and booked a two week adventure for April of 2012. Wow!
My trip to China was a surprising, inspirational, life altering experience. It all began by flying into Beijing’s airport and actually deplaning directly to the tarmac, recreating the iconic Nixon moment from Act 1, Scene 1. My trip was filled with these kinds of events, providing me a trove of sense memories to pull from during my performances. I tasted my first Maotai cocktail (which was nasty!) as Nixon does in Act 1, Scene 3. I went to the Peking Opera, bewildered to hear those strange and foreign sounds emanating from the stage, just as Nixon experiences in Act 2, Scene 2. I saw the Great Hall of the People, astonished at the immense expanse of Tiananmen Square, just as Nixon does in Act 1, Scene 3. I went to the Ming Tombs and touched the cool stone of a great elephant statue that stands along the Sacred Way, just as Pat does in Act 2, Scene 1. And I climbed the Great Wall, just as the Nixons did together on their trip in 1972. Of course, I also created my own memories of China, having visited Chonqing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Xi’an, as well as enjoying a cruise along the gorgeous Yangtze River. I’m sure the unforgettable memories from those excursions will color my portrayal of Richard Nixon too. [Above: The Great Wall of China. Photo by Brian Mulligan.]
The parallels between Nixon’s trip to China and mine are deeper than just following in his footsteps. We both left China changed men. We share that emotional memory. Nixon returned from his trip victorious, ending decades of silence between China and the United States. I was returning victorious too. Through my years of research on Richard Nixon, I had learned who I really am as an artist. Never have I put so much into a role, and never have I felt so good about my work. My battle with Nixon in China was far from over, but as Nixon taught me, the struggle was to be savored... and I sure have savored it. In Nixon’s memoirs, he says, “I think that to create great music is one of the highest aspirations man can set for himself.”. I like to think he would have approved of my performance. I’m certain he would have appreciated my effort! [Above: An elephant statue seen by Brian Mulligan on his trip to China.]