Political play

'Nixon in China' offers a mesmerizing look at revered U.S. opera
2006-05-19T00:00:00Z Political playWALTER SKIBA
Times Correspondent
May 19, 2006 12:00 am  • 

"Chairman Mao meets Nancy Sinatra," says Alexander Platt, Chicago Opera Theater resident conductor.

Platt conducts the long-awaited Chicago premiere "Nixon in China," John Adams' contemporary operatic masterpiece, tonight through May 27 at the Harris Theatre in Millennium Park.

"'Nixon' belongs to the Holy Trinity of American operas," Platt says, "alongside Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' and Bernstein's 'West Side Story.'"

COT general director Brian Dickie attended the 1987 premiere of "Nixon" at the Houston Grand Opera. "The effect was mesmerizing," he recalls.

The story takes place from Feb. 21 to 25, 1972, the occasion of then President Richard Nixon's historic trip to Beijing to meet the Chinese leader Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and work toward the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The libretto, by Alice Goodman, is drawn from news reports, television broadcasts, biographies and memoirs. The main characters are the two leaders, their wives, the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai. All are now deceased except Kissinger.

Adams' music is said to belong to a style called "minimalism."

The term, according to Platt, refers both to the current reigning style of American contemporary classical music and the more specific form based on infinite repetitions of a musical idea. In "Nixon," the repeated rhythmic ideas can be heard in the orchestra rather than the voices.

"The music unfolds in layer after layer like a giant Persian rug," Platt says.

He sees the influence of the 19th century German opera composer Richard Wagner. "The orchestra is the center of the drama, and there is the sense of an epic throughout."

To simulate a simultaneous translation of important utterances, Adams has three female secretaries sing every word that Mao sings, but in different melodies with slower rhythms reminiscent of 1950s popular music styles.

"The women emerge as half Greek chorus and half Las Vegas chorus," Platt says.

All the singers have body mikes, the orchestra is miked in some places, and there is a huge part for synthesizer. Adams' personal sound engineer has been employed to set up and maintain the difficult balances required.

Platt conducted the first-rate COT staging last May of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which beautifully captured its whimsicality, comedy and romance.

"Nixon" is co-produced in association with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, Portland Opera and Houston Grand Opera.


"Nixon in China," opera by John Adams presented by Chicago Opera Theater

When: 7:30 tonight, May 25 and 27, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. in Millennium Park, Chicago

Cost: $35 to $115 with 50 percent discount for students with ID, 50 percent rush

discounts available from 5 to 6 p.m. the day of performance. Group rates also available.

FYI: (312) 704-8414 or www.ChicagoOperaTheater.org

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