Singing Kissingers Over Here

Some thoughts on this weekend’s Metropolitan Opera HD premiere of John AdamsNixon in China, which I saw when the original Houston Grand Opera production was broadcast on public television in the fall of 1987:

In some ways the most compelling music is the chorus based on a revolutionary song, “The People Are The Heroes,” sung before Nixon ever appears on stage. Adams has something against melody in aria, but this motif, heard once, has haunted me for over twenty years. (This is a clip from the older production.)

James Maddalena has finally aged into the part. Here is his 1987 Nixon. I think it took about 12 pounds of makeup to keep him from looking impossibly young in the premiere.

It’s 2011 now and he actually looks like the Nixon we remember.

John Adams has a thing for beds on stage. It must be rough on the singers. Some composers make their bed arias lush and erotic, like Strauss:

Adams runs to sleepless nights, as in Doctor Atomic, or this:

It was inevitable that Kissinger be a basso buffo. The story is that the US State Department exaggerated his predilection for chasing tail, so that awkward absences — like jetting to Paris to negotiate secretly with the Vietcong — could be explained away by a clandestine mistress or three. Adams and Sellars had fun requiring the Kissinger singer to cameo as the evil, lustful landlord in Red Detachment of Women. Simon Legree meets Saturday Night Live.

Chou En-Lai walks away with the show in the end. Around 2:59, here.

“Everything seems to move beyond our remedy. Come, heal this wound? At this hour nothing can be done.”

I don’t remember those lines freezing me this way the first time I heard them sung. I am a quarter-century older now. I don’t know how old Alice Goodman was when she wrote them; Adams is barely older than I. At some point, you become aware of time and acceleration and the awful inertia of the world. Maybe they hadn’t yet felt it themselves; I’ve noticed that the daimon talks about things that your conscious mind only grasps years later.

At the time the opera premiered, I think everyone scoffed at the notion that anything happening in the twentieth century had the stuff of grand opera in it, even though Nero, Idomeneo, or Boris Godunov were once people who put their pants on one leg at a time, same as you or me. It’s not about adulation; history is made by flawed men (and women), trying to do what they think must be done, and we have to live with it. Opera like this is just one way of slowing it down and putting it into a snow-globe so we can keep shaking it up and looking at what it meant, over and over.

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4 thoughts on “Singing Kissingers Over Here

    • If you have the chance ferchrissake take it in. Unless you are made of wood, there are parts that will give you the old Aristotle one-two — pity and terror, like the Muse promised us.

      When we were young, we had the luxury of believing that the people in the AP wire photos didn’t share the fears and fuckups we were all resigned to. If art makes us think and makes us humble it’s done what is needed.

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