How ‘Nixon in China’ can save opera

James Maddalena in 'Nixon in China' at the Met. ()
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At a press conference unveiling the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming season, Peter Gelb last week proudly boasted that the average age of the Met audience is eight years younger than when he became general manager in 2006—dropping from 65 to 57.

For those uninitiated in the opera world, this is like the police commissioner announcing that the murder rate is plummeting: the city will live, opera will survive, we are all successfully fighting mortality. But later in the afternoon, the Met press office issued a sobering correction: “Surveys done by the Met show that the average age of a subscriber actually went from 66.4 in 2005 to 64.8 in 2011, while in that same period, the age of the average Met audience member (including single sale customers and subscribers) went from 60.4 in 2005 to 57.7 in 2011.”

This relatively small dip will likely reverse itself because of demographics. The first wave of Baby Boomers is turning 66 this year, with an annual wave hitting that age for the next 18 years. With this in mind, two prominent national studies conducted recently forecast some very bad news for arts groups, particularly opera houses: while a smaller percentage of Baby Boomers go to the opera than members of the “Greatest Generation,” there are lots of Baby Boomers. The same does not hold for the next generation, born between 1965 to 1982: “Generation X.” Not only do fewer members of Generation X go the opera than Baby Boomers did at their age, there are far fewer of them to go around. This is the warning to opera companies across America: in 20 years, you could all be dead.

A lack of arts education, expensive tickets, the total domination of film in the mainstream culture, high and low, that Generation X grew up with are all part of the picture. But above all, it's the fact that opera has presented itself to people under 50 as if it were something stuck in amber. It’s a terrific milieu for two amazing Bugs Bunny cartoons but not something that people see—or feel the need to see. If “Angels in America” with its ersatz Roy Cohn can become a major cultural event, there is no reason why opera can’t deliver the goods as well. Making and remaking versions of The Ring Cycle or Tosca is all very well and good, but the dozens of living composers out there who are toiling away in near-anonymity are creating stuff that could be a tonic to this dying art form, if only the institutions that pull the levers would take the risks on them.

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Gelb and some of his colleagues are aware of this crisis and are trying to do something about it while not alienating the 80-year-old dowager millionaire set. Tosca in HD won't do the trick. New opera must be central. Gelb’s most valiant attempt at this so far came earlier this month as he brought Nixon in China to the Met, with composer John Adams conducting it.

Almost 25 years after it was first produced in Houston, Nixon took six grand turns on the Met’s massive stage. Six times Richard Nixon (James Maddalena) and his dutiful wife Pat (Janis Kelly) dramatically disembarked from Air Force One (redubbed "The Spirit of '76' by Nixon for the trip)—with Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) in tow. Six times they're greeted on the tarmac by a Chinese contingent led by Premier Chou En-lai (Russell Braun). Six times Nixon and Mao (Robert Brubaker) have a philosophical exchange in Mao's study before a lavish and semi-drunken feast. is held for the Americans.

Six times Madame Mao (Kathleen Kim) runs amok in the middle of a performance of her agit-prop production "Red Detachment of Women." Six times, the principals end the drama by reflecting on life in the quietude of their bedrooms; "How much of what we did was good?" Chou wonders.

Indeed, the opera is good. But what's it all about? Is this a tragedy, a comedy or a pop-art Campbell's Soup can with no point of view? To tackle that question, it's helpful to know that the genesis of the work is in Kissinger's memoirs. After reading Kissinger's lengthy passages about China, director Peter Sellars was inspired to make an opera about Nixon's trip. The avant-garde Adams was less excited about an opera and initially viewed the project more as a campy comedy—complete with a mock homage to operas with titles like Ariadne auf Naxos or Iphigenie en Tauride. Adams writes in his memoirs: " ... What Peter was proposing only reminded me of all those bad TV comics who did Nixon impressions."

But Sellars was on to something, believing the trip was almost inherently an operatic event. Even in its secret planning stages, Nixon and Kissinger viewed the summit that way, predicting it would be a grand historical event in which two powerful ideologies and cultures would be juxtaposed on a global stage. Nixon would later consider this to be a highlight of his presidency; the back cover of the volume of his memoirs that focuses on his White House years prominently displays a photo of him with Pat, touring the Great Wall. Nixon also writes grandiloquently of his mission, recalling a toast from his last night in the country: "I raised my glass and said, 'We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world.' " After reflecting on the project —and presumably being pressured by Sellars—Adams agreed to write his first opera.

For opera, at that time, this was a young bunch, striking out on its own to find where the opera and contemporary life intersect, as theater in general has continued to do even as it continues to revive the old classics. (Not that theater is in such great shape either—but at least there's Broadway to propel it.)

Sellars and Adams brought fellow Harvard alumnus Alice Goodman into the project to write the libretto, a decision that would prove critical for the opera's success. Goodman had done her homework. Passages from RN are delightfully goosed into verse for the opera ("Though we spoke quietly, the eyes and ears of history caught every gesture," Nixon sings, excited.)

Goodman confidently shifts her passages from the literal to the dreamlike, sometimes in the course of a single aria. She also establishes dueling credos: "The Customer is King," Nixon sings near the opera's conclusion while Chinese soldiers open the first act with Goodman's interpretation of Mao's Three Main Rules of Discipline and The Eight Points of Attention: "The people are the heroes now. Behemoth pulls the peasant's plow."

Janis Kelly almost steals the show in this production as Pat Nixon, bringing a mix of humor and pathos to her role as she tours China in the first half of Act II. Mrs. Nixon perfectly encapsulates the no-nonsense ethos of a generation raised during the Great Depression: "In this world you can't count on luck. I think what is to be will be in spite of us. I treat each day like Christmas. Never have I cared for trivialities. Good Lord! Trivial things are not for me." Presented with a glass elephant by her hosts, Mrs. Nixon asks: "Is it one of a kind?" The chorus of three women tells her the contrary—that a factory can make hundreds daily. "Wonderful!" Mrs. Nixon responds, her recovery quick. Standing onstage by herself, Mrs. Nixon all but anticipates the split between America's coastal states and the landlocked heartland: " Let the expression on the face of the Statue of Liberty change just a little. Let her see what lies inland."

The central moment of the opera comes with the performance of "Red Detachment of Women" and the breakdown of the wall between the "performers" and the audience.

Mrs. Nixon sweetly and naively rushes to the aid of the lead dancer who is heartlessly molested and beaten by a landlord who curiously resembles Kissinger. Madame Mao enters the fray, screaming at the dancer "That is your cue!" In a chilling bit of theater, Madame Mao dominates the stage, holding her "Little Red Book" and declaring: "At the breast of history I sucked and pissed, thoughtless and heartless, red and blind, I cut my teeth upon the land and when I walked my feet were bound on revolution." As the act ends with Adams’ tumultuous music, various "dancers" are beaten and shot. Oz's curtain has been torn asunder and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are briefly revealed as the act ends.

The final act is a glorified—but necessary—coda to what we've just seen. Unlike her summaries of the plots of the other acts, Goodman simply writes: "The last evening in Peking." The voice of reason belongs to Chou En-Lai who, in a beautiful allusion to Noah, sadly notes: "We saw our parents' nakedness; rivers of blood will be required to cover them. Rivers of blood."

All of this is accompanied by Adams' churning music that, at times, echoes Philip Glass but then builds on that minimalism with saxophones, a distant piano playing a dance-hall tune, and even a quotation from Strauss. Along with Madame Mao’s tirade, the raucous music in which Air Force One lands and Nixon's subsequent aria ("News has a kind of mystery") may be a musical highlight. But repeated listens provide subtle discoveries in the score; something else always seems to be burbling up over the rubric. In the end, Nixon in China is such a success because it is a weird collage of irony, heartfelt emotion, and history. It is also the product of three great artists who are able to synthesize music and ideas—and give us a troublesome denouement. This isn't opera as we've known it for a century or more, but it's also a place that only the opera can deliver us to. And so productions like this are the better part of why opera will survive, if it does. You may not have Nixon to kick around anymore, but it would be appropriate if the Met's late embrace of this work were someday later to be seen as a critical moment in opera's comeback. After all, Nixon bounced back too.

Bob Hardt is the political director and executive producer at NY1 News.