ARTS: ‘Nixon in China’ a fever dream

For those who get all red in the face and make choking noises when opera is mentioned: get over it.

You have been brainwashed by lowest-common-denominator, unevolved scaredy-cats that are afraid of a demanding art form. If you have the guts to give it a try, you couldn’t have a better introduction than Opera Colorado’s (OC) current production of composer John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” It doesn’t get more rapturously strange than this.

Believe it or not, President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 diplomatic trip to the People’s Republic is the subject and substance of this remarkable work. Under the baton of acclaimed conductor (and former Colorado Symphony Orchestra music director) Marin Alsop and gifted with the innovative 2004 staging of soon-to-depart Opera Colorado Artistic Director James Robinson, “Nixon” is a hallucinatory meditation on power, ideology and culture shock that makes a permanent mark on the auditor’s imagination.

The historic visit was the high point of Nixon’s political career, before Watergate brought him low. The Cold Warrior’s famous handshake with Mao Tse-tung, master of Communist China, was part of a highly choreographed eight-day publicity stunt that also redefined the relationship between the two powers.

Composer Adams and his librettist, poet Alice Goodman, tackled the unlikely topic and came up with a masterpiece. The original production, directed by the well-known avant-gardist Peter Sellars, did as much as anything in the recent past to reinvigorate the classical music world.

Take Adams’ music. Its Minimalist approach â composed of cells of rhythm that ebb and swell, carrying the melodic lines along like waves on a beach â was not brand-new (thank Philip Glass and Steve Reich for that), but Adams was able to bend the style to his will. He opened it up and made it stretch to accommodate the demands of a three-hour piece for a multitude of voices, letting it refract thought and emotion.

Goodman’s script also takes liberties. Over the bare bones of the actual events, she weaves a skein of stream-of-consciousness musings as the work’s characters tangle and collide. In rhyme, of course.

Given the immense influence of the original production, stage director Robinson had to come up with a fresh conception â and he did. Here, the entering audience find dancers and chorus tracing mysterious unison through Tai Chi moves in front of a red lacquered backdrop. Center stage, a detachment of terracotta soldiers stand â much like the famous terracotta “army” found in Emperor Qin’s 2,200-year-old tomb in 1974.

The chorus forms a busy background against which the movers and shakers thrust themselves. Old, bulky console TVs float down from above, flashing video clips of the event. Nixon (Robert Orth), his wife Pat (Maria Kanyova), Mao (Marc Heller), Chou En-lai (Chen-Ye Yuan), Madame Mao (Tracy Dahl) and Kissinger (Thomas Hammons) blaze through their greetings, meet, observe … and all the while they declaim, comment, joke and dream with their eyes open.

As the show progresses, reality and artifice become hopelessly confused. The Nixons enter a performance of the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” they are watching. The characters dance alone, prepare for sleep, voice regrets. Their public faces crumble, the TVs behind them flicker out â a downbeat but sublime ending.

Set designer Allen Moyer and lighting designer Paul Palazzo do outstanding work here. James Schuette’s period-perfect costumes fling those of us who remember those days back into them. Sean Curran’s choreography, which moves all the characters in the piece, is top-notch.

The cast is excellent, and in excellent voice â perhaps the fact that these shows are being recorded live for later release has everyone on their toes. Of particular note are Chen-Ye Yuan’s deeply resonant voice, and blurred and conflicted portrayal of Chou En-lai, who muses about the worthiness of his efforts as he goes about his diplomatic business; Heller’s hectoring tenor as he hacks out a portrait of a cryptic, scolding Mao; and Tracy Dahl’s astonishing tour de force, vocally and dramatically, as the bitter, power-hungry Madame Mao.

These performances tend to overwhelm those of Orth and Kanyova, who stick move closely to two-dimensional interpretations of Mr. and Mrs. Nixon. Kanyova seemed tense enough at Saturday’s premiere to have overlooked the emotional and musical possibilities of the high point of the piece, her Act Two aria, “This is prophetic!”

These are minor complaints, however. In the orchestra pit is a fine OC ensemble, led by the amazing Alsop, one of the best conductors on the planet right now, and an expert in contemporary compositions. Her sharp attack at the podium, combined with the ability to construct a transparent orchestral sound that allows all its constituent parts to be heard, is revelatory.

It was just that the audience only rose to its feet Saturday night when Alsop hit the stage. As a bonus, she beckoned offstage. Who should toddle on for a bow? Why, the composer himself, obviously pleased. What could be a better endorsement than that?

Pulling off work like this is hard enough â excelling at quite another matter. Kudos to OC for doing so â and good for you if you go and fill your soul with this extraordinary experience.


Opera Colorado presents John Adams’ “Nixon in China” at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at 14th and Curtis Streets in Denver for three more performances â tonight at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, please call (303) 357-2787 or visit

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