Opera Theatre St. Louis' Nixon In China
Rob Levy
8/11/2004 10:48:58 PM

The travails and pitfalls of a world leader visiting a hostile land is not the stuff of which traditional operas are made. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped Opera Theatre St. Louis from mounting a breathtaking adaptation of John Adam’s great American Opera, Nixon In China.

Nixon In China is based on the events of President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in February of 1972. The visit was Nixon’s own Cold War drama, played out in the theater of public opinion and carefully staged, planned and executed by Henry Kissinger and his Communist counterpart, Chou en-Lai.

It was no easy task. Besides cultural differences clashes of ideology, Nixon endured the ramblings of an ailing Mao Zedong and the brazen tongue of his wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The first lady, Pat Nixon, was right by his side, visiting schools, meeting the people and seeing the wonders of Ancient China. She was the gentle left hand that complemented her husband’s hard right hand. Their visit wasn’t a huge success, but it did manage to get Tricky Dick some face time on the world stage. By building on the framework of ‘ping pong democracy’ a year earlier, Nixon’s state visit launched the first great thaw of the Cold War, one that eventually would lead the US into an era of Détente

OTSL’s Nixon In China is an ensemble piece that requires its performers to work in perfect syncopation with each other and the set itself. Fortunately, choreographer Sean Curran has an amazing group of talented performers to bring the production to life. The cast has a phenomenal sense of timing and pacing which eases the abstract scene transitions as the cast sashays near, over, under, and beneath the set’s television monitors, tables, statues and lots of extras.

The backbone of this ensemble is Nixon himself, played by Robert Orth. Orth plays Nixon with a nebbish zest and fervor seldom seen in traditional opera. He meticulously mimics the late president’s mannerisms and body language, realistically capturing the essence and complexities of this titanic figure, especially during the first act when his character is most dominant. Nixon’s scenes are relentless and gruelingly paced. Upon his arrival, after meeting people and chatting with Chairman Mao, Nixon reminds us that ‘the world is watching”, a statement that propels the early minutes of the show.

The Pat Nixon-centered second act allows Orth get to relax a bit before hitting another home run in Act Three. Despite wearing heavy make-up, Orth's dynamic performance enthusiastically captures the nuances and ticks of our 37th president.

The “Show Me” state’s own Maria Kanyova is one of the brightest spots of Nixon In China as Pat Nixon, the first lady who battles isolation and unfamiliarity during her visit. Her performance is the perfect subdued counterpart for Orth’s over-the-top Nixon. We don’t see her much in the first act, but by the end of Act Two the audience was eating out of the palms of her hands. Kanyova brings a sense of pride, compassion, duty and perseverance to the role. During Act Two, we feel for Pat as she struggles to put her best face forward while visiting historic sites and watching a mind-numbing, sexist performance of Chinese revolutionary ballet.

Every opera needs a bad guy, and Nixon In China has one of the best ever in Chairman Mao. Mao was not exactly the friendliest guy in town. He killed, looted, plundered and oppressed millions of people, setting the country back generations culturally and economically. This may be why composer John Adams chose to portray his Mao Zedong more feeble and inept than he really was in 1972. Although tenor Mark Duffin doesn’t look quite right as Mao (his makeup is bulky and distracting) his duets with Orth are marvelous.

The most spectacular thing about Nixon In China is the music itself. Conducted by former St. Louis Symphony conductor Marin Alsop, the orchestra created an agile tapestry that weaved snugly around Alice Goodman’s wonderful libretto. Alsop’s baton added weight to the minimalist production by enveloping the audience in a delicate musical blanket, contrasting the pompous ceremonial music of Communist China with the delicate sounds of traditional opera.

Director James Robinson’s innovative staging relied on quaint, red sets that symbolized the desolate simplicity and poverty of the Cultural Revolution. This also freed up space for Nixon and the gang to spread out as they sang and spouted their didactic ideologies.

By using actual news footage of Nixon’s visit as a backdrop, Adams and Robinson created an atmosphere of separation and heightened anxiety. The footage also amplifies Nixon’s perceived importance of the trip itself.

In fact, the boob tube is everywhere throughout Nixon In China. It is the one prop that pervades the entire show. Minimalism is in full effect as televisions serve as platforms, beds, monitors and steps for the actors to walk over. The recorded images of the actual visit adds a nice touch of realism while providing Robinson a free hand to use negligible amounts of furniture onstage. Both Adams and Robinson use television as a dual metaphor for the conflicting propaganda of the East and West. It also represents a clash of the old and the new and the free and the oppressed.

Nixon In China is like no other opera staged by OTSL in recent years. Despite the minimalism, politics and avant-garde staging, the production remains an historically charged, character-driven opera of epic proportions. It manages to be lumbering and soft, fast and bold, and bright and heavy all at once. These dichotomies make OTSL’s version of Nixon In China an amazing experience. They have completely rejuvenated John Adams’ chic opera about politics and cross culture catastrophe, creating the perfect closing production of their 29th Season. If only Nixon’s real visit would have been this exciting!


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