Nixon in China opera takes grand scale
Opera is known for being larger than life, but set designer Erhard Rom has never had to make a Boeing 707 land on-stage before.
In the opening scene of Nixon in China, he’ll do just that. A replica of the Spirit of ’76, the presidential jet that carried Richard Nixon on his 1972 diplomatic mission to Beijing, will touch down on a giant runway with its nose pointed toward the audience.
“I feel the landing of the 707 has to feel like an absolutely stunning moment,” says the artist, who’s helping design the new production for its Canadian premiere by the Vancouver Opera, which runs this Saturday (March 13) to March 20 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Speaking from his New Jersey home, Rom explains that he worked from actual plans of the airplane—and then enlarged it a bit “so it feels like the Titanic arriving”. “What struck me,” says Rom, “is that, in some ways, the piece is almost Wagnerian in scale—almost epic.”
The opera he’s speaking about, composed by John Adams to a libretto by poet Alice Goodman, is often described as a minimalist masterpiece. But there is nothing minimalist about Vancouver Opera’s mounting to mark both its golden anniversary season and the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad.
Vancouver Opera general manager James Wright admits it’s a big investment to commission a new production—not to mention one that has a chorus of 40. But Nixon in China, he says, seemed perfect for this city at this time, with the world gathered here.
“It’s about internationalism; it’s about cultures moving closer together,” says Wright, whose team is hosting an entire speaker series around the opera and Canada-China relations in the weeks before opening. “Then there is the fact that Beijing had hosted the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that Vancouver is seen as the North American centre for Asia.”
Michael Cavanagh, the acclaimed Toronto-based director Wright brought in to create the major new production, could not agree more. In fact, sitting in the rehearsal hall at the downtown Holy Rosary Cathedral, where right outside the doors people are decked out in flag gear and heading to a hockey game, he can’t help but make direct parallels with the Olympic Games.
“The show is a psychological examination of people involved in momentous events and how those can overwhelm and overtake them. And then how we need to wait and step back for history to tell us what it all meant,” Cavanagh says. “These couple of weeks in Vancouver are all about huge moments. This is one of the biggest events in this city’s history. But how is it going to be remembered?”
The show, he stresses, is much more than a dry chronicling of the historic visit between Nixon and Mao Zedong (sung by baritone Robert Orth and heldentenor Alan Woodrow, respectively) and the opening of the Far East. Yes, the opera depicts actual events: the arrival of Nixon and his cortege, the first uncomfortable meeting in Mao’s study and the huge banquet that followed it, as well as Pat Nixon’s tour of rural China. But it is just as much about the personalities and personal histories of the main players, not just Richard and Pat Nixon and Mao and his wife Chiang Ch’ing, but their advisers Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai.