Backstage at San Francisco Opera > May 2012 > An Audience with Chairman Mao
An Audience with Chairman Mao
Nixon in China is one of a handful of operas that mean the most to me. I first heard Nixon when I was at Dartmouth College in the spring of '94 during an opera survey class. The professor only played the "News" aria, but that was all I needed to hear, I was hooked. I instantly bought the recording and played it all day every day and when I finally got the score many years later, it revealed a whole new dimension to the music that I could finally play and sing to myself.
 
I made a point of going to see every production possible, which in the early days wasn't so easy. Nixon in the 90's was an opera whose future was still in doubt. "Minimalism" was an aesthetic that was not well understood and also frowned upon. The fact that John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass had extremely different approaches to that style was not particularly appreciated either.

The first time I saw a live Nixon was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a concert performance with several members of the original cast probably in '97 or '98. The opera was still making its way through the consciousness of audiences and administrators. Like a lot of minimalism's early adherents, the people that were at that performance were people not usually associated with the opera scene: younger people from other disciplines, jazz and pop music fans, people from the visual arts, and actors. It was an energy that I was not used to experiencing, but I liked it and it confirmed that I was on the right track.

The first staged Nixon I saw was at the English National Opera in 2000. It was the original production, which I had only seen on videotape. I saw about 3 or 4 performances of that run and each time I was surprised by how funny it was. The audience laughed and chuckled and seemed so thoroughly engaged by what they were watching that some performances I spent almost as much time looking at them as I did the show. [Photo: A scene from Nixon in China; photo by Cory Weaver.]

After that, Nixon kind of fell off the map again and it wasn't until 2004 that a new production came my way. Or rather I came its way since I drove from NYC to St. Louis just to see it. That cast featured two singers that will be singing in our Nixon production: Maria Kanyova as Pat and Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-Lai. If I knew that 8 years later I would be working with them on Nixon here, I would never have believed it. They have spent years developing their characterizations and hearing them inhabit these roles today is supremely gratifying.

At the Opera Theatre St Louis production and the ENO revival I went to see in 2006, I also noticed that the audiences were changing. There were still plenty of the edgy crowds that I had seen exclusively at BAM and for much of the first ENO run, but by this time the traditional opera audiences were catching on and finding that far from being inaccessible, Nixon channeled a different part of their brain and its rhythmic infectiousness was not something to suppress but to find your groove in.

With the arrival of Nixon in China at the MET in January 2011, the last imprimatur of the establishment was given and the debate about whether it would prove durable is largely settled; Nixon is here to stay.
The great thing about the San Francisco production is that to me, it is the first production that takes the quality and durability of the work as a given. The music doesn't have anything to prove anymore. The production is about the next generation of exponents and ideas that will influence future interpretations and audiences. The production design and direction are first rate; clear, thoughtful, always motivated and entertaining. The sets are imaginative, original, provocative, atmospheric and fun. Brian Mulligan, making his debut as Nixon, is going to own the role for a long time. Simon O'Neill is the best Mao you could cast with singing alternating between stentorian and sweet and even the costume transformation is extraordinary given how much unlike Mao he looks in his daily life. The conductor that I'm assisting is Lawrence Renes. He has the music in him so much, that with a score this difficult (It is MUCH harder than it sounds) we all rely on him and he gets us through with clarity, calm and a collaborative spirit that trusts us all to do the very best that we can do. If you come, I guarantee you will feel that spirit from everyone on the stage, in the pit and all of us in the wings and prompting booths. [Above: Joseph Marcheso conducts a stage rehearsal of Nixon in China.]

You're going to have a great time.
Posted: 5/30/2012 8:14:18 PM by Joseph Marcheso, (Rehearsal Conductor, Nixon in China)
Filed under: 2011-12Season, Adams, conductor, NixonInChina


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