I broke my brief concert-going hiatus quite dramatically last weekend by flying to the Windy City to attend John Adams’s Nixon in China at the brand-new Harris Theater in Millennium Park. While Adams’s opera might as well be standard repertoire from my vantage point—I was at the NY premiere back in 1987, saw it on TV, went to the concert performance at BAM a few years back, and have listened to the 3-LP boxed set countless times after buying it at Tower Records the week it came out—seeing and hearing it staged live in the Chicago Opera Theatre’s new production was a revelation.
I did not attend the opening-night performance which, believe it or not (well, sadly it is believable), was the local premiere. This was probably for the best considering all the problems I heard the tech crew had with supertitles. I know it seems counterintuitive that you’d even need supertitles for an opera sung in English. But the reality is that even in a 1500-seat theatre like the Harris, a lot of words still get lost even with pared down orchestration (check), sensitive vocal amplification (check), and melodic lines that match the prosody of the text (double check). And the words of Alice Goodman’s multifaceted libretto—unlike those of Verdi scribes Francesco Maria Piave and Salvatore Cammarano—are as important as the music, which is after all what dramma per musica should be.
Of course, sung text can never have the same degree of comprehensibility and immediacy as dramatically spoken text. But sometimes singing can convey the multidimensional implications of a situation more effectively than speaking. Featuring a chorus echoing back every single one of Mao’s utterances is a powerful metaphor for his demagoguery, but one that would be extremely tedious in a spoken-word drama. Similarly, making the actress who sings Cultural Revolution instigator Chiang Ching (a.k.a. Madame Mao) relentlessly intone “I speak according to the book” with an oscillating sixth repeatedly hitting unearthly high Cs shows her dogmatic fanaticism more viscerally than declaiming a speech (even shouting one) possibly could. (And Kathleen Kim pulled it off more convincingly than anyone I’ve ever heard sing this.)
But aside from the powerful musical theatre that Nixon in China proved itself to be once again, experiencing it onstage so many years after its original production allowed for some important historical reflection. I’m not talking about the real Nixon in China here, being slightly too young to remember much about him other than Watergate and the resignation. Rather, I’m pondering the significance of Adams’s first opera as a part of music history, which at this point it most certainly is. While he had earlier compositional landmarks—like Shaker Loops, Phrygian Gates, Harmonium, and Harmonielehre—each tugging at the integument of minimalism more vociferously than the last to the point of defining post-minimalism to the musical public, Nixon brought Adams to the general public: it even put him on CNN. (It also spawned the term “CNN opera” for operas based on recent and current events, which is an unrelated semantic coincidence.)
Nixon‘s music wafts seamlessly between chugging arpeggios and ostinati, faux swing, and something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on back in the late 1980s. That something else is neo-romanticism. During Kathleen Kim’s crystalline delivery of “I speak according to the book,” I had my big a-ha moment: “Wow, that sounds like David Del Tredici; it even has Final Alice‘s oscillating major sixths.” Of course, that DDT moment, like the more easily recognizable Philip Glass-sounding moments, is still pure John Adams. But the homage is just as unmistakable, even if it was not conscious on his part, if you’re paying close enough attention. The fact is that John Adams’s mature music is equally informed by these two once controversial compositional challenges to the hegemony of atonality, and I never heard it that way so clearly before. I have a friend who loves standard repertoire opera who for years has isolated that aria as an example of why he doesn’t like new opera, but for me, last Friday night, it suddenly became the most exciting moment of the entire piece.