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

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.

With the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in the pit, conductor Fergus Sheil’s handling of the opera feels slow to warm up, and the first act doesn’t really come into sharp musical focus. The sometimes romping energy of the second act is when the show comes fully to life. There are two further performances – tonight and Saturday.

Violin versus piano
Everything else I heard over the weekend was on an altogether smaller scale. On Sunday afternoon, I caught up with the series of Beethoven's complete violin and piano sonatas being given by violinist Catherine Leonard and pianist Hugh Tinney at the NCH John Field Room.

We still talk of these pieces as violin and piano sonatas, but Beethoven ordered the instruments the other way around. Violinist George Bridgetower described himself as accompanying Beethoven in the premiere of the demanding sonata now nicknamed the Kreutzer. And, similarly, a time-pressed Mozart explained in a letter to his father how he had written out only the accompaniment (that is, the violin part) of a new sonata and kept his own part (the piano) in his head for the concert.

The point about the priorities is worth raising because of the long-standing tradition in these works of famous violinists playing them in the company of tame, obedient, self-effacing pianists, who have become experts at conjuring up an impression of independence while doing only their masters’ or mistresses’ bidding. You get used to it, but it’s definitely not what composers such as Beethoven and Mozart had in mind.

Leonard and Tinney offered the rare pleasure of playing four sonatas (Op 12 No 2 in A, Op, 12 No 3 in E flat, Op 23 in A minor, and Op 24 in F, the Spring Sonata) with perfect poise and balance. Nothing understated, nothing forced, everything spot on. The final concert in the series is on May 25th.

Musical purity
The same kind of collegial care and musicianship is to be found in the work of Germany's Calmus Ensemble, five singers from Leipzig. I heard them at the Barrow River Arts Festival on Saturday, where they sang contrasted pairings of pieces by composers from Leipzig, with the great JS Bach playing a leading role ahead of Schütz, Schelle, Distler, Johann Christoph Bach and Schein. There is so little that is superfluous in what these singers do, you could almost use them as a definition of musical purity.

The festival's artistic directors, violinist Maya Homburger and bassist and composer Barry Guy, also played, in a typical programme reaching across the centuries from early music to new work and improvisation. Guy's new Rondo for Nine Birds, inspired by ink drawings by Fred Hellier, saw the duo, joined by percussionist Lucas Niggli, put through their freewheeling, soaring paces.