Nixon in China opera takes grand scale

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      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.

      The result defies the one-note image of Nixon as the Watergate crook, or even as the aloof apologist of the recent film Frost/Nixon. “This piece definitely does not treat him like a villain,” Cavanagh says. “This opera is a fantastic opportunity for us to get to know the giddy Nixon, the playful Nixon, the contemplative Nixon, the jokester, and the romantic. And it’s the same with Mao: at the time of the visit, Mao was kind of doddering.”¦But the opera gives us a chance to see Mao as a young man, doing a silly little jig at one point; he’s also romantically involved, even sexually involved—because he was a sensualist as well as a great thinker. They were complex—we’re all complex people.”

      Just as the events go beyond the literal, delving into the psychologies of the characters, the design is stylized—beyond that initial jet landing, that is. The perspective and scale are exaggerated, with the characters lined up in front of huge triangular pillars painted with their portraits by the third act. The colour palette is a bold red, white, and blue. “We visit locations in a literal way, but the scope of the piece is so large, we wanted to go more abstract,” says Rom, who used architecture and news photos, among other things, in designing the production. “And then by the third act, you’re really into abstraction, because now we’re really all the way into the land of these people’s minds.”

      Throughout the opera, a TV film crew captures the action on-stage, with the video replayed at key moments. “The great unblinking eye and the reductive power of television was something that Richard Nixon was all too aware of,” Cavanagh comments.

      It’s a task that sounds positively Wagnerian, as Rom says, but the team is feeling excited about its not-so-minimalist endeavour. And, almost apologizing, the affable Cavanagh falls into another Olympic metaphor.

      “I suppose it’s daunting in the same way that an Olympic athlete would feel daunted by the home-field advantage,” he says. “There’s a lot of the world’s eyes on this production—but that’s also a good thing. You just want to be prepared and you want to work hard and you want to do the best you can. I sound like a bobsledder.”