Friday, March 19, 2010

Nixon in China in Vancouver

Set models for the Vancouver Opera production of John Adams' Nixon in China

Okay, I think I can officially say that opera is one performance genre that is just not for me. Last night at the Queen E, sitting through the third act of what I have no doubt is a highly commendable production of John Adams' Nixon in China, I just wanted the whole thing to be over and done with. The performances were very strong (with Robert Orth an especially uncanny Richard Nixon), everyone was in fine voice (Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao especially), the sets (see above) were suitably abstract and monumentalist, the libretto by Alice Goodman was moving and witty by turns, Wen Wei Wang's second act ballet (with a star turn by Fei Guo) was pleasingly diverting, and Adams' famously minimalist music was surprisingly catchy.

But it just went on and on. Why couldn't it all have been reduced to one act of 90 minutes? The third act's self-reflexive ruminations (on both Nixon's trip and Adams' opera) by the six principals seemed especially superfluous, like composer and librettist had run out of ideas for spectacular coups-de-théâtre (ping-pong anyone?). And I couldn't really understand why Henry Kissinger was part of the action, given how under-used he seemed to be (apart from a bizarre role in Act 2's play-within-the-play).

I think part of my difficulty with opera are the expectations of the audience that routinely accompany productions such as this. Acclaimed as one of the 20th century's most important additions to the operatic canon, and receiving its Canadian premiere here in Vancouver (some 23 years after its debut in Houston), Nixon in China is a work we have been told at every turn (in the media and by pundits near and far) that we must and will enjoy. This idea that opera is good for us, that it will ameliorate us as cultural/cultured beings, and that it's appropriate that we should suffer in order to enjoy it, is what really gets up my nose.

I can appreciate its individual component parts, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk opera leaves me cold.


1 comment:

Selina at Vancouver Opera said...

Thanks for coming, Peter, and for blogging about it. And thank you too for remaining open-minded all the way through! Nixon in China is certainly a different kind of opera and really takes the art form in a new direction.

Opera is vast genre, encompassing everything from light, sparkling Mozart comedies to heavy, darkly passionate works by Wagner. Opera fans are varied too, wonderfully and wildly opinionated, even when it comes to the ‘classics’: some refuse to sit through Mozart and some think that Wagner could stand a good edit. But one thing is common: they will not suffer for their art and neither should you. If you liked the singing, the acting, the sets, the music and the ballet, but it just seemed too long, or the story too abstract, that’s perfectly valid.

Like any art form, there are some operas that are better appreciated after some experience with the genre, like Nixon. But above all, opera is meant to be enjoyed, and so if you didn’t like Nixon, you didn’t like Nixon, no matter what the critics say.

Up next at VO, we have The Marriage of Figaro, which is as different from Nixon as you can get. If you haven’t seen it already, I’d encourage you to give it a try. If you don’t like it, well, then it’s probably safe to say opera’s not for you! Fair enough – some people don’t like jazz, or ballet. (Personally, I don’t understand the big deal about Fellini. So there you go.)

But thank you again for coming to the show and for this post.

All best wishes,
Communications Manager
Vancouver Opera