Sunday, the significant other and I went to see The Canadian Opera Company’s Nixon in China at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, Toronto’s (relatively) new opera house. Hadn’t been there before. I loved the building. The lobby’s a symphony of blonde woods, glass staircases and stainless steel finishes. It seems designed to make patrons feel elegant. It works too. The auditorium itself is more traditional – five tiers of seats arranged in a horseshoe make for good sightlines for all; the acoustics are first-rate too.
Nixon in China is by John Adams a contemporary American composer of the minimalist persuasion. I’ve always liked Adams’ music. It has chugging repetitive rhythms, much like Philip Glass on steroids. My partner Meirion says it’s monotonous and unchanging, which misses the point entirely. Like the music of Philip Glass, Adams' music is in fact always changing, albeit slowly and subtlety at times - and that's the point.
Nixon in China is sung in English but there are surtitles projected above the stage. They really help.
You get a sense of the music in the clip below. This btw is not the same production as the one currently being performed by the COC here in Toronto – in other words, the visual elements are different, but the tensions it portrays, and of course the striking musical score, are the same. Both productions feature the same lead baritone, however.
The opera tells the story of the historic visit of Richard Nixon to China in 1972. It’s an unlikely subject for an opera, and frankly not always an engaging one. There are indeed moments of grandeur here, such as the plane landing at the outset, and a performance piece in Act Two at a state dinner attended by the President which gets dangerously out of hand, to the point that Mrs Nixon attempts to halt the proceedings. But much of this work, all of Act Three in fact, is taken up with the reflections of the principal characters - the Nixons, Chou En-lai, Henry Kissinger, Mao Tse Tung and his wife, the volatile Chian Ch’in. That it mostly engages is a tribute to Adams impressive score, the fine orchestra and cast and the absolutely first-rate staging.
The floor of the stage is blood red. Dozens of terra cotta warriors decorate it before the opera begins and are employed symbolically throughout the opera. It’s a spare but clever set, with the large chorus often arranged as an architectural element in themselves. In a nod to technology, TV sets, many of them, showing images of the actual event, appear throughout the work. It adds a sense of both immediacy and history to what is an extremely powerful stage design.
The leads are excellent. Robert Orth, who has apparently made a career for himself playing Nixon, strikes me as entirely definitive. The mannerisms are not overplayed, but he looks like Nixon, acts like Nixon and captures that mix of awkwardness and authority that was this doomed president’s other legacy.
Did I like it? Yes, I did. Meirion did too. But once again, this is a challenging work. If you're unfamiliar with operatic conventions or minimalism, or both, this might be bit too much. Fans of modern opera though will almost certainly walk away from this production singing.
I’m tempted to ask, though, what is it with opera and gay men? Certainly go to any opera and you’ll see more than a few gay boys there. (Otherwise audience demographics are pretty mixed except for a lack of anything other than white faces; there is, sadly, little ethno-diversity here.)
I suppose one of the attractions of opera for gay men is its “over-the-topness” – the dying divas who sing to the end, the grand passions, the big arias and the big scenes, like the triumphal march from Aida, that make the excesses of Disneyland seem tame. “Cue the elephants” is indeed a cry heard in more than a few opera houses.
My relationship with opera goes back to the 1970’s. I had a boyfriend then who recruited supernumeraries (aka supers) for the Canadian Opera Company. Supers are, in fact extras, who don’t sing. (I'd say they act instead, but that may be stretching the definition a bit.) They're often called spear-carriers, although their roles are more varied than that. I’ve played non-singing waiters, torch-bearers, peasants, courtiers - you name it. Anyway, I was a not-so-super super for over thirty productions, going on stage with the best of them, like Placedo Domingo and the late Joan Sutherland. No elephants crossed my path, but I did shows with more than a few horses.
I’ve liked opera ever since. However, it is soooo expensive we seldom go. (The tickets to Nixon were a Christmas present.) Having said that, there are a number of cheap options. "Day-of" tickets for instance go for $22, subject to availability, standing room tickets are $12 – cheaper than a movie! Anyway, for a taste of something really, really grand, not to mention more than a little gay, I recommend everyone try going to the opera at least once in their life.
Nixon in China runs to February 26. Information on tickets, etc. is here.