“NIXON IN CHINA” was first recorded in the legendary midtown Manhattan RCA studio where Sinatra and Horowitz had made some of their great albums. The studios no longer exist of course, and anyone who wants to make an orchestral recording in present day New York City knows how difficult and ridiculously costly that now is.
The sessions took place toward the end of the run of a half dozen performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music shortly before Christmas of 1987. Edo de Waart, the Dutch conductor who eight years earlier had been the first to give me a chance at composing for a professional orchestra, led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The cast was the same as that of the world premiere two months earlier in Houston. In their mid to late thirties, most were decidedly younger than the world-historical characters they were impersonating.
Now “Nixon” is back, this time at the Met, and Nonesuch is releasing a spiffy new version of the original album to coincide with the Met’s production which starts on February 2. To prepare for rehearsals I recently listened to the original recording, and I was bowled over by how superb the playing and singing is.
As I look at the “Nixon” music now I can see how my inexperience with vocal writing must have caused the singers to panic when they first opened their scores. I thought nothing of throwing in high F#’s and G’s for the two baritones, Nixon and Chou En-lai. But both James Maddalena and Sanford Sylvan figured out a way to knock them out show after show and never sound forced. A skilled composer knows that a singer needs to “prepare” a high note by leaping to it from a lower one. All those archetypal Puccini high C’s are preceded by a lower note that acts as a launch pad for the big moment. But I was either ignorant or just plain indifferent to this essential fact, and I blithely wrote entrances, especially for the men, that started at the top and more or less stayed up there.
The most punishing writing of all, that for Chairman Mao, required of the tenor John Duykers that he virtually reprogram his voice. Instead of composing reasonably modulated lines that allow the vocal musculature to periodically relax and recoup its strength, I gave him lines that started on a high wire and just mercilessly remained up in the stratosphere. I must have been thinking at the time that if Mao were going to be heard by a billion Chinese he would have to sing very loud and very high—all the time. Duykers “created” the role in every sense of the word, finding ways to exploit not only the “heroic” quality of his voice but also using his imposing stage presence to evoke a larger than life presence perfectly suited to the Mao of those classic posters and statues. He was indeed the model of the philosopher-dictator, the wily strategist who stumped the Americans while dallying with his young secretaries.
With the exception of John Duykers, whom I had known earlier in San Francisco, we cast the opera the old-fashion way, by holding auditions a year earlier. Nothing came easily. A whole day went by listening to lyric sopranos singing the few lines I’d by then written for Pat Nixon. I heard some good singers, but too many were stiff and vocally exaggerated. Then at the very end of the day Carol Anne Page walked in. She was married to a Broadway conductor, Paul Gemigniani, her father was a famous chorus director, and she demonstrated immediately the qualities needed for that role: a clear lyrical voice, pristine diction and subtle acting.
Trudy Ellen Craney sang the coloratura role of Chiang Ching, otherwise known as Madame Mao. I wrote for her both as a fiery, toxic Queen of the Night and also, in Act III, in a more yearning and tender way. She was impressive in both guises.
The bass buffo role of Henry Kissinger was sung with humor and gusto by Thomas Hammons. He has continued to sing it in the intervening years in various other productions around the country. In the Peter Sellars production Kissinger morphs into cartoon-like gangster in the second act ballet and has to be as nimble as a ballet dancer. Tom did the morphing with zeal. Kissinger has perhaps the most humiliating final exit of any role in the operatic repertoire. He doesn’t die in a duel, nor does he ride off into the sunset on a white steed. He simply asks where the toilet is and says “Excuse me for one moment, please.”
This week, while rehearsing the incomparable Metropolitan Opera Orchestra I was reminded of two things. The first was that the New York Times critic who said of “Nixon in China” that “Mr. Adams has done for the arpeggio what MacDonalds did for the hamburger” was not that far off. I am astonished by how much of the opera is constructed by means of continually modulating arpeggiation. Most of this is done by the woodwinds, whose parts look not unlike the kind of finger etude books every instrumentalist uses to warm up. The violins, usually the melodic workhorse of the orchestra, play very little. They spend a lot of the time counting rests and, presumably, enjoying the stage action from their vantage point in the pit while the overworked clarinets and saxophones and keyboards are sweating bullets.
In this use of arpeggiation I was much indebted to my predecessor Philip Glass, and Glass fans who grumbled that my opera had appropriated some of his stylistic earmarks doubtless had a point. But what make “Nixon” especially fiendish are the constantly tripped rhythmic changes and the driving, inexorable two-against-three texture of the counterpoint. This is not rhythmic rocket science—Elliot Carter or Conlon Nancarrow employ much more complex rhythmic collisions. But the way my rhythmic changes happen—at high speeds and over long expanses of supercharged pulsing—requires of the orchestra an exceptional capacity for concentration. At the end of an act the expressions on some players’ faces resemble someone who’s just survived an A-level Japanese video game.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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