Tom’s Review: “Nixon in China” at San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2012

The Thoughts of Tom

Just 14 months after Nixon was in China, I was in China, but somehow neither Mao Tse Tung nor anyone else in China danced for me!! But, like Nixon and his wife Pat, ultimately I very much wanted and got to see The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace, The Great Wall, and the Ming Tombs, some of which I show in my review of Adams’ “Nixon in China” presented at Long Beach Opera and reviewed my me on this website [see Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong Dance at Smashing Long Beach Opera “Nixon in China” – March 20, 2010] showing photos at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, CA (his birthplace and burial site) as well as many of my pictures of Peking (now Beijing in pinyin).

[Below: Brian Mulligan as President Richard M. Nixon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Like the Nixons, my home was and is in Orange County, CA where I often got to see him live at speeches, campaign rallies, etc — I say this as Brian Mulligan, who stars as President Nixon (seen June 17, 2012 sitting next to your website host, William) — absolutely had down Pat (sorry) Dick Nixon’s every gesture, facial expression, body language and style, as indeed did Maria Kanyova doing Pat Nixon.

For those of us who saw the real Nixon perform live onstage, some of the scenes Brian Mulligan gave us were totally hilarious – some in the orchestra stared at me as I laughed, probably too much !!!

[Below: Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova, left) provides moral support to Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Lucky me, I twice got to see “Nixon in China” in Los Angeles (and got hooked) as well as at Long Beach Opera, then early this year at The Met. As your website host William cogently notes [see his earlier review at 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012], San Francisco Opera’s Bossman David Gockley did the first production of this piece at Houston Grand Operas when he was Head-Honcho there – and now, 25 years later having harvested all this “Nixon in China” performance history/experience/legacy, he lands Air Force One on the San Francisco Opera stage in a stunning, smashing and dazzling show – by far and away the Apotheosis production of this American home-grown, Docu-Opera masterpiece.

Sitting dead center at the left elbow of our maestro, conductor Lawrence Renes, I could hear and see everything as if I was sitting atop the prompter’s box in a director’s chair (your website host always sits here for the San Francisco Opera Sunday matinees).

And, oh!!!  Was there lots to see and hear! This production, originally from Vancouver B. C.  as William observes, is from my viewpoint a very, very different reading of the piece than those seen in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and the Met.

In one production (we won’t mention names .   .   . ) Pat Nixon is portrayed as a frequently drunk clown garnering uproarious laughter every time she was center stage, but not so in San Francisco where she is treated most sympathetically. In another production, there were PG 13+, X-Rated scenes, but not in San Francisco. Being a native San Franciscan born and raised here through college years, I found this soft treatment of Nixon and Pat quite surprising – and refreshing indeed!

Not that Mr Adams and the other creative-team didn’t have opinions, but these do not corrode the overall sweep, reality – and immense drama – of this work -Mr Adam’s rookie try as an opera composer! Mr Mozart up there in the clouds: take note!!

[Below: the official talks take place with, from left to right, Premier Chou En-lai (Chen-Ye Yuan), Mao’s three secretaries (Ginger Costa-Jackson, Buffy Baggott and Nicole Birkland), Chairman Mao (Simon O’Neill), President Nixon (Brian Mulligan) and Secretary Kissinger (Patrick Carfizzi).

The arrival of Air Force One and the greeting of the Nixons on the tarmac at Peking Airport has to be one of the most gripping scenes in all American Home-grown opera, on par with Robert E Lee meeting General Grant in Glass’ “Appomattox” presented here in 2007 [see William’s review at The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007.] in an utterly Superlative production.

And I so rate this “Nixon in China” in San Francisco which I unabashadly rate one of the four greatest Made-in-USA operas –  George Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess”, Glass’Appomattox”, Heggie’s “Moby Dick” (to be seen at the San Francisco Opera in October 2012) and now this production of “Nixon in China”.

I’m not seeking adulation when I say, without reservation, this has to be one of the best productions of any American Twentieth Century Opera I have seen in the 60+ years I have been coming to the opera – initially brought by my San Francisco Gramma in my kid’s Sailor Suit. I kid you not!!

As fate would have it, the previous week I had seen the World Premiere of “Nixon’s” composer John Adams’ newest opera – “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” – in LA’s jazzy new Frank Gehrey designed, screaming Disney Hall. But Adams told us at the outset this new piece is still being crafted, forged, changed – it ain’t yet ready for the Big Time, but us audience mob loved it!!

[Below: Madame Mao (Hye Jung Lee, front center, at prompter’s box ) and her followers; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

 The Ballet Sequences of Act II

Contrary to the image most Americans and Europeans have of Jiang Qing (pronounced Jee-yong Ching) – Mao’s wife # 4 – as a sinister, evil Wizard of Oz style Wicked Witch of the East, she was a significantly gifted patron of the arts who produced now World Class ballet and many operas, plus much other cultural richness greatly encouraged by The Chairman.

This includes the machine-gun, dazzling Ballet sequences seen in Act II of “Nixon” dubbed The Red Detachment of Women. Mr Adams lavishes some of his absolutely best music here, to me greatly reflecting the dynamic, surging, powerful ballet music of Prokoviev and Shostokovitch.

[Below: Lead ballet dancers Bryan Ketron, left, and Chiharu Shibata, right, perform “The Red Detachment of Women” as Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova, seen dimly, seated at far left) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

When The Chairman died, she was the Dragon Lady head of the infamous Gang of Four, but this, too, disappeared as China steadfastly marched forward in its late 20th Century Great March towards becoming a Super Power. As my Long Beach  photo of the Great Hall of the People (where Nixon met The Chairman) shows, The Chairman still gazes out over his people!!

My Overview?

I leave you with my assessment of this masterpiece expressed in my Long Beach review, but now greatly embellished by this magnificent San Francisco show: I observed then, and more so now in considering what this opera has to say – and does loud and clear, “So here we have these two enormously major players on World Center Stage, facing each other to maneuver the Knights, Rooks, Bishops, Kings – and pawns too – in a World-Scale immense chess game, very much visualized by Adams.”

Who won? Chou en-lai (Mao’s Prime Minister) closes this opera to Adams’ sonorous, lush Puccini-like score posing the question of whether anything they did was good?

Mao, Nixon, Pat, Jiang Qing, Chou En-lai are all buried now.  It’s been 40 years since America took its first attempt to address the New China, and now 40 years later China is a superpower and America is stationing troops in Australia and sending multiple gunboats and aircraft into the Western Pacific. Is the irony obvious?