Nixon in China at the San Francisco Opera

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ixon in China, Patrick Carfizzi (Henry Kissinger), Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon), Brian Mulligan (Richard Nixon), Simon O’Neill (Mao Tse-tung), Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao) and Chen-Ye Yuan (Chou En-lai). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Nixon in China, Patrick Carfizzi (Henry Kissinger), Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon), Brian Mulligan (Richard Nixon), Simon O’Neill (Mao Tse-tung), Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao) and Chen-Ye Yuan (Chou En-lai). Photo by Cory Weaver.

San Francisco Opera

Nixon in China
John Adams, music
Alice Goodman, libretto

Richard Nixon – Brian Mulligan
Pat Nixon – Maria Kanyova
Mao Tse-tung – Simon O’Neill
Chiang Ch’ing, Madame Mao Tse-tung – Hye Jung Lee
Chou En-lai – Chen-Ye Yuan
Henry Kissinger – Patrick Carfizzi
Nancy T’ang – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Second Secretary – Buffy Baggott
Third Secretary – Nicole Birkland
Wu Ching-hua – Chiharu Shibata
Hung Ch’ang-Ching – Bryan Ketron

Conductor – Lawrence Renes
Director – Michael Cavanagh
Production Designer – Sean Nieuwenhuis
Lighting Designer – Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director – Ian Robertson
Choreographer – Wen Wei Wang

17 June, 2012, War Memorial Opera House

There was a moment when American opera companies faced greater challenges both producing and selling contemporary work, but could still be relied upon to produce the 19th century classics with success onstage and at the box office. Maybe the training and experience of musicians onstage and in the pit has finally caught up with the calendar. Maybe a newer idiom is less of a reach than the older one and the cultural displacement and carnage of the two World Wars has finally separated us from traditions of bel canto. Perhaps as listeners we hold different expectations of singers in contemporary work than we do of singers in Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet. For whatever reason, the production of Nixon in China currently gracing the stage of the San Francisco Opera is the most stylistically coherent  achievement of their summer season and is bringing in audiences. Much praise to all concerned.

The opera is rightfully dear to General Director David Gockley’s heart, having premiered under his leadership at Houston Grand Opera in 1987. In its creation, Nixon required a collaboration among the Houston company’s resources, director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and composer John Adams, then 40 years old. It is one of the few late 20th century operas to be found not infrequently on world stages and to be seen in more than its original staging. Director Michael Cavanagh mounted the current San Francisco revival originally for Vancouver Opera, but it is totally at home on the War Memorial stage and executed with winning expertise by singers and production department alike. All three of San Francisco’s current offerings use video projection as essential elements of the design and regie; Flute magically, Nixon effectively and Verdi’s Attila disappointingly. The success of the projections in Nixon spurs me to add further praise to Jun Kaneko and Harry Silverstein’s work on Magic Flute. There is less chance for cognitive dissonance in use of contemporary technology on a contemporary score (not to minimize the achievements of Cavanagh and designers Erhard Rom, Parvin Mirhady, Christopher Maravich, and Sean Nieuwenhuis), but Kaneko and Silverstein made technology support the classical work with similar ease and grace.

Back to Nixon in China. The matinee performance on June 17 was for this reviewer a first exposure to the piece as a whole, having heard orchestral excerpts before, but never seeing the full work staged, so no comparisons can be made to other productions or renditions. Adams’s use of minimalism as one among a number of musical genres within the score is skillful and the work moves forward with a momentum different (if not absent) from the central Philip Glass works that have imprinted minimalism on our musical consciousness. The repetitions of words and musical sequences are briefer and trace a more conventional musico-dramatic contour. At the same time, the way that minimalism hypnotically can suspend time contributes to Nixon‘s ability to force us to meditate on the impact of historical events and cultural currents, the eternal ambitions of a revolution and the inevitable process of evolution that follows.

I did not find every moment of the work to be equally successful, particularly Madame Mao’s sudden shocker in the last act, talking to the orchestra pit “Come on, boys. We’ll teach these motherfuckers how to dance,” which led to only a fragment of rock idiom, of dance, and seemed a big lead-up to an amorphous consequence.

Much of Act III (particularly beautiful in design and lighting) was played with characters wandering and engaging briefly with each other in moments of different levels of tenderness and isolation, downstage of giant images of the historical figures they portrayed. While his singing had been solid throughout, the score of the final act gave baritone Chen-Ye Yuan (one of six vocalists making their SFO debuts in this production) opportunity for sustained soft singing of striking beauty. Now I want to hear him in Schubert.

All of the solo singing is occasionally amplified, as is the orchestral sound, as part of the intention of the composer. Nonetheless, Adams gives his singers (occasionally challenging) vocal lines that allow them to demonstrate their capacity to fill an opera house with song. The cast was uniformly not only capable, but outstanding in different ways.

Simon O’Neill as Mao Tse-tung projected the high tessitura of Mao’s propaganda filled speech with seeming little effort and a steely sound, yet recovered the full warmth of his voice for moments of greater introspection. Maria Kanyova used her lovely lyric, Nadine Conner voice and presence to sympathetic effect, presenting Pat Nixon as she likely felt — the one non-diplomat and relative innocent being asked to appreciate the high stakes political game around her as well as the cultural tourism of schools and farms that were her obligations as first lady.

Goodman and Adams depict Henry Kissinger and Madame Mao less sympathetically than any of the other figures. Apparently operaphile Kissinger (the only surviving historical figure) has never seen how Nixon in China portrays him, which is probably for the best. Somewhere between unsettling and satisfying for those of us who lived through the era of his diplomacy, onstage he is the unleashed vulgarian, violent and predatory, uncultured and crude. Patrick Carfizzi sang with strength and performed without inhibition, making Kissinger alternately terrifying and ludicrous, half-barbarian, half-schlemiel. Something in me rebelled against this characterization of the only Jewish character in the work, but I impute absolutely no anti-semitism to the creative team or the production. It is, however, how 19th-century and Nazi-era Europe characterized Jews, lustful, violent, unsavory.

Chiang Ch’ing, Madame Mao Tse-tung as a character is also a variation on a known cultural stereotype, the Asian dragon lady. Petite in stature, forceful of character, and brilliant of voice, Hye Jung Lee managed the pyrotechnics of the role stunningly. Making her SFO and role debut as Madame Mao she had the role and the audience fully within her grasp.

With his idiosyncratic voice and manner, Richard Nixon became his own cultural stereotype. Brian Mulligan used enough of the familiar diction and physicality (helped by a Nixon nose from the make-up department) to identify his character, but stopped short of fully impersonating the most impersonated president in history. Mulligan’s youthful energy was inconsistent with the role (Nixon was 59 in 1972) — bounding up the rolling airplane steps like a Rossini Figaro — however he sang with striking beauty of tone throughout. Albeit missing the gravity of Nixon’s age, the American baritone covered Nixon’s full emotional range from belligerence to vulnerability, jealousy and paranoia to confidence and political skill. Mulligan, a familiar figure to SFO audiences, assured himself a popular welcome when he returns this fall as the Herald in Lohengrin.

Nixon in China, a performance of The Red Detatchment of Women. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Nixon in China, a performance of The Red Detatchment of Women. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The Act II Ballet, based on a work devised by the tyrannical (as portrayed) Madame Mao, is the catalyst that draws the strongest emotion from the Nixons and triggers the dissolution of Kissinger’s character to its sloppy and depraved depths. Solo dancers Bryan Ketron and (especially) Chiharu Shibata, choreographed by Wen Wei Wang, made sure that the scene had its full impact. In the genre of “play within a play” the scene succeeded in blurring the lines between the fictional and the real to appropriately troubling effect.

Orchestral and choral work (under chorus master Ian Robertson) was strong in all three operas, this certainly no exception. Debuting conductor Lawrence Renes imparted confidence to all his forces, representing the score with honor. From the brash to the intimate to the mysterious, the varied atmospheric potential of Adam’s score and Goodman’s libretto was fulfilled. It was a very satisfying afternoon at the Opera.

About the author

David Dunn Bauer

David Dunn Bauer is a rabbi, critic, and educator formerly based in San Francisco, now in New York City. He writes regularly on issues of Torah, sexuality, Queer culture and community, and the arts. Before his rabbinical studies, he spent 15 years directing theatre and opera productions around the United States, Israel, and Europe. Having served as a congregational rabbi for many years, he now teaches about religion, Queer Judaism, and the nexus of spirituality and eros at colleges, synagogues, churches, and retreat centers nationwide. He is an alumnus of Yale University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality rabbinic leadership program, and the certificate program in Sexuality and Religion at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. He studied music with Nadia Boulanger in 1976 and movement with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 2010 and 2011. His contribution to the “It Gets Better Project” can be seen at David creates Queer Jewish programming in the Bay Area for Nehirim ( and has a private Spiritual Counseling practice based in Queer theology, available to everyone (

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