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PAT AND DICK AND CHIANG AND MAO: The First ‘CNN Opera’ Finally Appears on Met Gala

The Metropolitan Opera’s Nixon in China rides on powerful performances and a meticulous, lavishly outfitted production. Through the miracle of HD, I was able to see the February 12thperformance live at the AMC Town Center multiplex, along with a sizable handful of other opera buffs. John Adams, the work’s composer, conducted the production, and of course he brings authority to his score though he is not really what you’d call a master conductor. The Met Orchestra played magnificently, reproduced so vividly that the experience was the next best thing to being right there onstage with the singers.

Based on President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and his meeting with Chairman Mao, Chou En-lai and others, the 1987 opera was transformative in several ways: It made us rethink what is potential fodder for opera, and it pioneered an innovative hyper-minimalist vocal style. But more than anything, its shimmering, brilliantly hued score – complete with a dense orchestral part that has influenced numerous composers since – makes it sheer fun to see and hear. And with China ever on the ascendancy, the opera has if anything even more pertinence today than it did in 1987.

This production will be of special interest to Kansas City audiences because two of the leads – James Maddalena (Nixon) and Richard Paul Fink (Henry Kissinger) – are to be a part of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s performances of the opera in the new Kauffman Center next season. Maddalena, who created the role at Houston Grand Opera, has become its definitive exponent: Despite diminishing vocal heft, he performed with incredible conviction, keeping the part compelling for the opera’s entire 3 ½-hour length. He has internalized this role as completely as any singer in any contemporary opera I know of. Robert Brubaker played the aging Mao Tse-tung (as his name was transliterated into English in the 1980s) with a mixture of frailty and inner strength that captured this man’s great complexity. Russell Braun’s Chou En-lai was a tortured, pensive man, dying of pancreatic cancer yet honored to be a part of such a historical moment; Braun’s is a deliciously rich and burnished baritone that I’d love to hear much more of. Richard Paul Fink was unsettlingly funny as Kissinger.

The sound and HD image were impeccable, though I found myself wishing for more medium and long shots and fewer extreme close-ups. (More than once, the camera was on a singer’s face when plenty else was going on.) Peter Sellars, one of the original creators of Nixon at Houston Grand Opera, directed the production with brilliant clarity. (He also directed the telecast.) I could have used more movement in some solo scenes, though, such as Pat Nixon’s big dramatic solo in Act 2: True, the stasis allowed us to focus purely on Janis Kelly’s splendid singing, but the end effect was textbook “park and bark.” And speaking of the women, Kathleen Kim was downright scary in the coloratura role of Madame Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, her hoydenish cries sending a shiver down my spine. (And as Kathleen herself pointed out in one of several backstage intermission interviews – elegantly hosted by Thomas Hampson – the real Madame Mao was just as intimidating in the documentary footage we have of her.)

Mark Morris’ dances, created for the 1987 original, were mellifluous when needed and powerfully dramatic in the Act 2 opera-within-an-opera. This opera scene, an emotional climax of uncommon emotional force, shows the Nixons demonstrating particular compassion for the downtrodden peasant girl of the story: With Morris’ wildly fresh and elaborate choreography providing the core of the movement, it is easily one of the most powerful scenes in contemporary opera.

Adrianne Lobel’s sets feature the famous Air Force One of Act 1 and a series of moveable chairs, cabinets, beds and animals. Everything about the look of the production – right down to Pat Nixon’s perfectly tailored red jacket with its double-row of buttons – was top-of-the line. (Costume designs are by Dunya Ramicova.) That’s what we’ve come to expect of the Met, and this time they delivered.

The Met’s Nixon in China will be encored in movie theaters around the Kansas City metro on March 2nd. See www.metoperafamily.org for more information, including the latest about upcoming HD telecasts.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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