The fireworks and the finer points of ‘Nixon in China’

John Adams’s first opera, which had its premiere in 1987 but has just landed in Dublin, is full of ideas

Set in Peking (Beijing) in February 1972, The operas 'Nixon in China' acts as a psychological insight into the political minds of East and West as US President Richard Nixon makes a ground-breaking visit to communist China

Wed, May 14, 2014, 09:15

Who would have predicted that minimalism and opera would combine in a popular partnership? Back in the 1960s, the idea of operas from the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich would surely have seemed far-fetched. And when, in the late 1970s, John Adams began making his mark in a world that already knew Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, it would have been a brave soul who would have bet on an operatic future for him, too.

Adams’s first opera, Nixon in China, the brainchild of director Peter Sellars, was first produced in Houston in 1987. It is both reverential and radical. Adams is well-versed in the musical past, and he likes to infuse his work with the styles and flavours of earlier times. He’s even willing to embrace the world of that bogeyman Arnold Schoenberg, whose 12-tone style generated a culture that minimalism set out very specifically to oppose.

Minimalist is a label that most composers, Adams included, seem to want to shun. But the sound of Adams’s work and his musical processes suggest the word, just as specific moments in Nixon suggest obeisances to a range of other composers and other musics, from Glass to Wagner to big-band jazz and well beyond.

Nixon in China is about an event that took the world by surprise more than 40 years ago. It deals with the historic visit that, in 1972, saw US president Richard Nixon step on to the soil of an arch-enemy, China.

There are lots of the trappings of traditional opera, showpiece arias, a ballet, and a coup de théâtre in the shape of an onstage jet for Nixon to alight from (Ernst Krenek sought a similar impact in the 1920s by having a moving train in his opera Jonny spielt auf).

But, for all its spectacle and its guying with familiar real-life characters, Nixon in China is not really an opera about a story or a big event. It’s an opera about ideas: the idea of the breaking of the diplomatic ice; a crazily detached Mao; a ridiculously impressionable Pat Nixon; and a vicious Jiang Qing, the female power behind the Chinese leader’s gnomic presence.

The music is a current that runs and races, sometimes with firework-like brilliance, sometimes with calming balm, behind the musings and confusions of the characters. Nothing is really settled, nothing resolved. The future is, if anything, less clear at the end than at the beginning.

Wide Open Opera has bravely brought the work to Dublin for a belated Irish premiere at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. The production, which opened on Sunday, was first seen in Vancouver in 2010, and the original director, Michael Cavanagh, directed the revival in Dublin, with a cast from both hemispheres.

Australian baritone Barry Ryan is a thoughtful Nixon, Irish soprano Claudia Boyle a sashaying Pat Nixon, and Australian tenor Hubert Francis is a distracted Mao. Irish bass John Molloy is a solid Henry Kissinger, and he also doubles as the baddie in a moral play within a play – a well-handled ballet choreographed by Jessica Kennedy – much to the confusion of the unfortunate Pat Nixon.

If Adams’s sympathies lie anywhere, they lie with the men and women of the chorus, who are allowed a rare kind of emotional engagement, even when they’re made to chop up words with mechanical delivery. The Wide Open Opera chorus, most of them students from the DIT Conservatory and the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and trained by Killian Farrell, sing heartily. Vocally, the evening’s star turns are the fearless coloratura of US soprano Audrey Luna as a feisty Jiang Qing; and, for sheer character, the trio of Mao’s secretaries, Irish mezzo sopranos Sharon Carty, Imelda Drumm and Doreen Curran.

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