YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rethinking 'Nixon in China' : Contemporary opera is updated as Peter Sellars revises staging of 1987 production in light of the Tian An Men killings

September 02, 1990|JOHN HENKEN

Almost three years after its premiere, Music Center Opera finally will present "Nixon in China"--the opera it agreed to co-produce in 1986. Ironically, the passage of time since the initial 1987 Houston Grand Opera production has seen major developments in China that are being addressed by the creators, so Los Angeles audiences will see a premiere, of sorts.

Post-Tian An Men Square, the ending of "Nixon in China"--the staging, at least--has been revised.

The brainchild of director Peter Sellars and based on then-President Richard M. Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, the opera will have five performances beginning Sept. 11, delayed from the previous season so that it could be part of the current Los Angeles Festival, also directed by Sellars.

These performances mark both a culmination and a crossroads for the opera. Although this production has already run in five other cities and been documented on television and recordings (with a video disc from London due next year), Sellars says he has only now really resolved some of its issues, working a major revision on his staging in light of the Tian An Men Square massacre.

"I have a feeling that we'll finally come to terms with the piece here for the first time," Sellars says. "We really got the piece figured out in Amsterdam. It's been wonderful to work on 'Nixon' over six times and begin to the solve the piece.

"Now we can begin to look at what the piece really does say about U.S.-Chinese relationships," Sellars reports. "I think a lot of people thought of it as a little bit on the light side. It's darker elements will come to the fore now. I'm going to restage a couple of episodes, rather completely, in a further development of the ballet and the last act."

There is much there that could lend itself to such darkening. Parodying "The Red Detachment of Women," the ballet by choreographer Mark Morris is already a high-voltage confrontation between revolutionary imperatives and establishment ennervation, between theater and reality. The chorus sings "Nothing can change without discipline, give me that gun," giving way to Chiang Ch'ing's fire-breathing aria. There she sings "When I appear people hang upon my words," but the music emphasizes the word hang in grim irony, only then completing the phrase.

In the finale, the Nixons and Mao and Chiang Ch'ing reflect as interlaced couples on their past, the Americans with simplicity and unconscious humor, the Chinese with tired philosophy and sexual innuendo. It is left for Chou En'Lai to mediate their nostalgia and hopes with his own uncertain reflections on how much of what they had done (in the past and during the just ending meeting) was for good.

We saw our parents' nakedness;

Rivers of blood will be required

To cover them. Rivers of blood. . . .

A bankrupt people repossessed

The ciphers of its history

And not one character could say

Whether the war was over yet

Or if they'd written off the debt.

What Sellars will make of this remains to be seen. He does say, though, that " 'Nixon' is staged in many ways as a classical Chinese opera," which might surprise many who have described it in terms of traditional Western opera. He points out though, that "there will be actual Kun opera in the festival (by performers from Shanghai now living here) and people will be able to make some comparisons."

Concluding the opera seems to have been difficult from the beginning. Adams actually created a separate work, "The Chairman Dances," as a sort of orchestral gloss on part of the finale scenario discarded early on in the collaborative process. Sellars revised his staging for the final scene itself during rehearsals for the Houston Grand Opera premiere, changing the setting from an exhausted, slightly tipsy banquet to a surrealistic dormitory.

The final scene has also been restored to its original intent as Act III, separated now by an intermission from the ballet scene that caps Act II. In another departure from the original production, "Nixon" has gained the hotly debated blessings of supertitles. Composer John Adams has been quoted as saying he banned them in Houston, but now after seeing the piece in several other houses, he says he is in favor of them. As in Houston and elsewhere, "Nixon" will be amplified and is, of course, in English. But Adams cites the subtle glories of librettist Alice Goodman's text as sufficient reason to enlist the aid of the projected word, though he is not sure how it will work in the multilayered finale.

As Nixon in China opened diplomatic doors, so "Nixon in China" has been opening opera doors--literally and metaphorically--around the world. Not since the heyday of Puccini was a new opera--and a first opera, at that, for Adams and Goodman--awaited with such shrewedly stoked anticipation. More amazing yet, its impact has easily balanced all the preliminary buzz.

Los Angeles Times Articles