Alan O’Riordan.

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Acts of bravado on the political stage with Nixon in China

Wide Open Opera’s ‘Nixon in China’ commemorates the late American president’s meeting with Mao Zedong in 1972, writes Alan O’Riordan.

Acts of bravado on the political stage with Nixon in China

WIDE Open Opera is not yet two years in existence, but it already has an impressive CV. The Dublin-based company kicked off with Tristan und Isolde in 2012.

A co-production of Gerald Barry’s weird and wonderful take on The Importance of Being Earnest was staged last year, along with The Alma Fetish, a new opera by Raymond Deane and Gavin Kostick.

“The idea behind setting up Wide Open Opera was to give audiences different experiences of opera that they hadn’t had already,” says the company’s co-founder and artistic director, Fergus Sheil. “So, while we love our La Traviatas, and everything, we wanted to expand the horizons of what opera can be.”

Next up for Sheil is John Adams’s modern classic, Nixon in China.

“Nixon in China hasn’t been done here before,” Sheil says. “I just think it’s an amazing piece of music. I go around with this list of operas in my back pocket that I want to do and it seemed like this was the right move, after Tristan. I didn’t want to follow Tristan with something too similar. I didn’t want to fall into a pigeon hole, so I wanted something different.”

There’s little fear of Wide Open being pigeon-holed: they are following Nixon with a series of five five-minute pieces by Brian Irvine, to be performed and recorded on the streets of Dublin. “Maybe, some day we’ll do Madame Butterfly, but we are trying to show just how wide open opera can be,” says Sheil.

Sheil says Nixon appealed to his interest in politics, and it is current again. The great game of diplomacy between the US and Russia regarding Ukraine is akin to the Cold War. Geopolitical concerns and shifting balances of power were at the heart of Nixon’s overtures towards the People’s Republic. His trip, in 1972, to meet Mao Zedong was when China’s relations with Russia were at a low ebb.

“There’s so much in this that is relevant to conflicts that are happening around the world today. You see different powers lining up against each other in different ways,” says Sheil. “It’s 20 years or so since we’ve had this kind of antagonism between Russia and the US and you wonder where it’s going to lead.”

Nixon’s motives fascinated Adams, even though he dislikes the disgraced former president. But he eventually found Nixon to be an “interesting character”, a complicated, emotional man. The opera represents the conflicting public and private faces of Nixon. This is a revelations for audiences, for whom Nixon is known second-hand, as a derided and lampooned figure.

“We think of Nixon only as the guy who resigned. Of Watergate, of course, that was a crime and he deserved to resign, but I think it’s interesting to colour-in some of the other aspects of his character. Watergate is not everything about him, and this is what’s interesting.

“One of the other projects we’re thinking about longer-term is an opera about the Kennedy family. It’s something we’re hoping to develop with Brian Irvine and Laurence Roman, it’ll be three or four years down the line. It’s going to look at the darker side of the Kennedys. There’s this flipside we have of Kennedy the good guy and Nixon the villain, so it’s interesting to subvert that and go behind it. I think opera is really well placed to deliver something that is epic and large in scale but thought provoking.”

Sheils’s production will certainly fulfil the former: he’s been lucky enough to have as his template a famous production from Vancouver in 2010, among the visual treats of which is a full-scale replica of Air Force One taxiing onto the stage.

Nixon in China might not have any romantic mix ups, tragic lovers or farcical situations, but that does not mean it is without an interesting role for the prima donna. First Lady Pat Nixon’s character is one of the most astutely observed elements in it: an intelligent imagining of the suborned life of the president’s wife. “She wanted just to have that classic American middle-class life with the husband she loved,” says Sheil. “But he was always absent — married to politics. We’ve been using this term in rehearsals, that she led an unrequited life, never quite got it the way she wanted it, not even after he resigned, since he became so embittered.”

It is perhaps ironically fitting given the subject matter that Nixon in China’s genesis was something of an opera by committee. It was the director Peter Sellars who had the original idea. In turn, Alice Goodman was enlisted as the librettist. While it was agreed that the treatment would be heroic rather than comic, there were disagreements between them along the way.

That power struggle reveals itself in tensions of sound and sense, of musical emphasis that ironises certain lines, or hints at possible ambiguities. “It’s fascinating to see what John Adams does,” Sheil says. “Alice Goodman had a different view and they didn’t agree. These contradictions exist in the opera and they are fascinating. For instance, if you write the line, ‘I am the wife of Mao Zedong and when I appear people hang on my words’, you have a certain idea of what that means. But the way the music goes, she says, ‘I am the wife of Mao Zedong, when I appear the people hang... on my words’. The fact that he out in a gap there, that changes the entire meaning.”

Such tensions enrich the listening pleasure, but doubtless calls for very close collaboration between the conductor and director. For this production. Michael Cavanagh, who directed the Vancouver 2010 version, is again in the director’s chair. “It is a very close relationship,” says Sheil. “I think there’s always a bit of give and take but essentially we work two sides of the same coin. We have to be sure what we say chimes. Michael’s great — this is his fourth time to do it. The rest of us are grappling with it for the first time. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half and I’m still discovery more.

“It’s not a love story where the heroine dies at the end, it’s not that kind of opera. There is a narrative structure in it that raises lots of questions but doesn’t resolve them for you.”

* Nixon in China is performed at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, on May 11, 14 and 17. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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