Saturday, October 21, 2017

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of "Nixon in China"

 Franco Pomponi as Richard Nixon & Kyung Chun Kim as Chou En-Lai (Photo: Marie-Noëlle Robert)
Today is the 30th anniversary of the great American opera Nixon in China by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman.  The work premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, in a production by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris.

The three act opera was inspired by U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972.  When Sellars approached Adams with the idea for the opera in 1985, Adams was initially reluctant, but eventually decided that the work could be a study in how myths come to be, and accepted the project. Goodman's libretto was the result of considerable research into Nixon's visit, though she disregarded most sources published after the 1972 trip.

The work had been commissioned jointly by the Houston Grand Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Netherlands Opera and the Washington Opera, all of which were to mount early productions of the opera. Fearful that the work might be challenged as defamatory or not in the public domain, Houston Grand Opera obtained insurance to cover such an eventuality. Before its stage premiere, the opera was presented in concert form in May 1987 in San Francisco, with intermission discussions led by John Adams.

Jonathan Beyer sings "News has a kind of mystery" from Nixon in China:

In June 1988, the opera received its European premiere at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam followed by its first German performance later that year at the Bielefeld Opera and its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival.

For the Los Angeles production in 1990, Sellars made revisions to darken the opera in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests. The original production had not had an intermission between Acts 2 and 3; one was inserted, and Sellars authorized supertitles, which he had forbidden in Houston. Adams conducted the original cast in the French premiere, at the Maison de la Culture de Bobigny, Paris, on December 14, 1991. Despite their love for Western music, the opera has never been performed in China.

Remarkably, a number of barihunks have performed the role of Richard Nixon, beginning with James Maddalena at the premiere, followed notably by Franco Pomponi, Brian Mulligan and Ola Eliasson. A number of baritones have used the Act 1 aria "News has a kind of mystery" as an audition piece or in competitions to great effect, most notably Jonathan Beyer.   

Nixon in China contains elements of minimalism., which originated in the United States in the 1960s and is characterized by stasis and repetition in place of the melodic development associated with conventional music. The opera is scored for an orchestra without bassoons, French horns, and tuba, but augmented by saxophones, pianos, and electronic synthesizer. The percussion section incorporates numerous special effects, including a wood block, sandpaper blocks, slapsticks and sleigh bells.

The next scheduled performance is at the Mainfranken Theater Würzburg in Germany in May 2018. Houston reprised the opera in January with Scott Hendricks in the title role.

Joa Helgesson and Derek Chester from the Barihunks photo book
Our 2018 Barihunks Calendar, which includes 20 of opera's sexiest men is now available for purchase HERE. In response to reader demand, we've also added a Barihunks Photo Book this year, which includes additional photos that don't appear in the calendar. You can purchase that HERE. The New Year is approaching faster than you think!

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