I’ve always found opera to be the most difficult form of music to review, if only because there’s not supposed to be anything you can compare it to. If you go see the Strokes (or Tool or Miranda Cosgrove or whoever), you can asses their performance by comparing it to their studio recordings; the only question the review has to answer is “how does the live show stack up against all the music you’ve already heard?” Opera, however, doesn’t work like that. An opera succeeds or fails on the basis of its qualifications as a singular experience, something you can only experience in one room on earth, once; even the Knife can’t turn an opera into a music-only experience effectively. So how do you convey the value of an experience like that to an audience who wasn’t there?
One way is to talk about architecture. John Adams’ 1987 opus Nixon in China is widely (and correctly) acclaimed as a masterpiece worth seeing in any setting, but the opportunity to see such a monumental work in a venue as incredible as the Disney Concert Hall doesn’t come around very often. I realize that we are spoiled for choices when it comes to music venues here in Los Angeles, but for my money the Concert Hall is the best place in town to listen to any type of music; there literally isn’t a bad seat in the house. When I saw Kamasi Washington there last November, for instance, I was only able to get tickets sitting literally behind the orchestra and still staggered away from the performance shell-shocked with delight by everything I’d just heard. And suddenly the opportunity to see one of the most highly-regarded titles in the contemporary classical canon performed in such an acoustically august setting presents itself to me? Uh, sure, I might be willing to jog downtown for something like that.
Unsurprisingly, it sounded like heaven and earth colliding once my ears got comfortable with what was going on. Adams, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is widely considered to be the third major pillar of American minimalist composition alongside Philip Glass and Steve Reich, which should hopefully give you a pretty good idea of what his music sounds like. I personally adore this exact kind of music unequivocally; I love the way it uses rhythm masquerading as melody to lull the listener into a trance only to pull back and clobber them with staggering beauty. A room with the acoustic quality of the Disney Concert Hall makes music like this infinitely more approachable; what sounds like a giant monolith of sound on record can be deconstructed to the point where you can listen to specific musicians, like the third violinist or the second pianist, in order to follow what they’re doing with exacting precision. (Having Adams conduct the orchestra was a nice “directors cut” plus here.)
Of course, not everyone can hear things with my ears. My friend who took my extra ticket, for instance, could not have enjoyed the unyielding, cyclical chug underpinning the score less. It’s understandable; Nixon in China is two and a half hours of music unfolding incrementally, and that’s a tall order for folks who primarily use music to escape. Minimalist music is unflinchingly modern; its incessant pulsing and cavernous arrangements have their origin in Glass and Reich trying to replicate the tension and relentlessness inherent to contemporary urban life. And in the specific case of Nixon in China, a work pitched since its inception as a “CNN opera” whose contemporary setting was kind of the whole point, using that hyper-modern sound to convey an insistently modern aesthetic could, I guess, feel a little stifling; the whole thing is built from the ground up to make the audience feel like they’ve been plunged into the present.
Or at least a present. The narrative that plays out over the course of Nixon in China is the story of Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to (wait for it) China. Since a large part of the pleasure of this work lies in seeing how Adams adapted historical events into such an unconventional format, the plot unfolds fairly straightforwardly: we see Nixon arriving, we observe the audience he takes with Mao Zedong, we watch as Pat tours the countryside, et cetera. As is typical of most minimalist operas that I’ve seen, the real action unfolds along broad thematic lines rather than crisp narrative beats – for instance, rather than show Nixon and Mao’s negotiations as they actually transpired, the sequence unfolds as dueling arias in which each leader presents their philosophies on leadership and power. If you read this and can’t help wondering how you’re supposed to connect with a story about two of history’s least inspiring leaders getting together four and a half decades ago, I absolutely know that feel; I found the show’s musical content compelling enough to sustain my interest even when the appeal of the narrative content flagged, but I don’t want to position Nixon in China as some revelatory story that I couldn’t stop following.
However, any attention-related deficiencies were completely and totally compensated for by the show’s ingenious staging. Taking some apparent cues from Orson Welles’ famous Caesar, Nixon’s stage is sparse and unobtrusive by design; aside from a few black risers and stairs, the stage could pass for blank – aside from the giant television looming over the stage, that is. At its heart, Nixon in China is “about” the optics of Nixon’s visit more than it’s “about” the visit’s actual events – how the image was constructed to evoke American power, or women’s roles, or any of a number of other issues. The giant television serves – used sometimes to project newsreel footage onto, elsewhere to act as a transparent surface through which characters can project their motivations – as a line of demarcation on the stage; characters go back and forth across it depending on whether they’re “on TV” or merely on the actual stage of the show. Respecting the dividing line requires extensive-yet-invisible choreography (which the cast, crew, and choir all nail flawlessly), but the elegance with which these characters move between the show’s various planes of reality is impressive enough to make you gasp.
Which finally brings us to the really good stuff. Despite its commitment to its unique representations of historical figures and broad themes, it’s worth pointing out that the most captivating, enervating moments of the entire production tend to come when Adams’s focus pulls back slightly. The first act, for instance, wraps up with a giant swell of activity as Nixon, Mao, Kissinger, and others exult in the moment and get wasted together, culminating in an enervating round of explosive celebration (“Gan bei” in Chinese); all of a sudden, all of the melodic lines building up over the course of the show to that point resolve and explode in a spectacular show of musical fireworks. But that segment – spectacular as it may be – can’t hold a candle to the dance sequence at the heart of the second act: the leaders attend a politically-themed play at the Peking Opera, which unfolds as a dazzling display of charged motion. Both of these moments are notable for their departure from the restraint which gives the rest of the production its character, yes, but their exuberance punctuates without detracting. They are peaks of a uniformly worthwhile work.
I don’t want to make Nixon in China out to be the most impressive opera I’ve ever seen; six months ago I went to the revival of Glass’ Akhnaten, and it played out like all of Nixon in China’s high points happening at once (and also with jugglers). I also don’t want to pass myself off as some high culture habitue; contemporary composition is deeply my shit, but I hear 99% of it on recordings rather than in the flesh. But I can say this without reservation: Nixon in China was unequivocally worth the trip.
Visit John Adams’ website www.earbox.com.
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