Revisiting Nixon in China

Grand Opera and Anti-Opera
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 22, 2011

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To celebrate the forthcoming 25th anniversary of the opera Nixon in China, its three creators — composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and stage director Peter Sellars, whose idea it was to have an opera about Richard and Pat Nixon's 1972 visit to China — gathered last Tuesday afternoon on the stage of Harvard's Loeb Drama Center (home of the A.R.T.) to discuss their landmark opus. And since they're all Harvard graduates, and this is Harvard's 375th birthday, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust was the interlocutor.

Sellars was, as usual, the most voluble, and his running commentary was consistently pointed. He began by talking about misguided traditions and opera "Dead from the Met." La traviata, Verdi's shockingly contemporary opera about the Parisienne demi-monde, "should look like [Godard's] Vivre sa vie," he said, "not how many pillows you can get on one sofa." Nixon was the chance to make opera new again. Was this hubris? Faust asked. Goodman replied, "I think we were audacious, but not hubristic." And, Adams added, "The world seems to change enough to make the opera seem even more relevant. . . . The big questions don't go out of date."

All three perceived the irony of Nixon being an "anti-opera" that became a "grand opera" when it was finally produced at the Met (staged by Sellars) last year. And that Nixon is filled with jokes about grand opera (including elephants). Sellars talked about the way both the music and the libretto move from "vulgarity — blues, jazz, rock — and chit-chat into the sublime." And they each reiterated that, although the three didn't always agree, they trusted one another.

One of the main issues confronting the team was how to portray the disgraced and reviled former president. They all wanted to avoid satire. Sellars referred to Moliére's Le bourgeois gentilhomme (the social climber who doesn't realize he's speaking in prose): "Absurdity and heartbreak," he said, "are inherent in comedy — the difference between what we're announcing and what we're able to achieve. Moliére took his characters absolutely seriously — it's the humor of mercy, the way you laugh at yourself, not at the character's expense. It's not that we were humanizing Nixon — he was human."

Harvard, of course, also came up as a subject. Goodman said that there was a sense "that you could do anything." Sellars said he came to Harvard because there was no theater department. And that the school gave its creative students "the ability to fail spectacularly."

  Topics: This Just In , Opera, John Adams, Loeb Drama Center,  More more >
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