The Big Kahuna

Jan 18, 2011


Peter Sellars watches Chou En-lai greet Richard Nixon

The Metropolitan Opera is one very large institution, sort of the Pentagon or General Motors of classical music. It’s the Big Kahuna in every way. Sprawling over the better part of a city block, its actual physical space is far more than meets the eye at street level. Musicians, administrators and stagehands enter the building at ground level, but much of the activity takes place in the three subterranean floors that go deep below. The building is so vast that its not impossible for people to go weeks working every day and not see someone they know who works in a different department.

On a single day up to eight or ten operas can be either in rehearsal or already in performance. The daily schedule that the Met puts online for all its artists and employees to consult reads like the Grand Central timetable. The coming week, for instance, involves performances of three different Verdi operas, plus the inescapable Tosca and rehearsals for an orchestra concert featuring Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” There will be rehearsals for a Gluck opera while at other times there may also be daytime presentations of a shortened “Magic Flute” for children.

Then of course there are rehearsals and coachings and dance classes. “Nixon in China” has been in rehearsal since just after Christmas, and the rehearsals go for six hours a day, six days a week. Much of this takes place in a labyrinth of rooms so deep underground that it would not be a surprise to bump into Dante and Virgil, dazed and confused.

The main event of the Met of course is the auditorium itself, a very large and elegant performance space that seats 3800 and is nothing short of an acoustical miracle. Why the Met is blessed with such excellent sound and its two neighbors, the New York Philharmonic’s Avery Fisher Hall and the David H. Koch Theater (home to the New York City Ballet and City Opera) have only fair to middling acoustics is a mystery. I recently heard a Philharmonic concert in Avery Fisher and was reminded of how drab the sound was there. This is a scandal, because the New York Philharmonic is one of the world’s great orchestras, and its musicians deserve to perform in a space that does justice to their playing. I have not heard the recently improved David H. Koch Theater across the Lincoln Center Plaza, but in the past years when I conducted in the pit (for the NYC Ballet) or listened from the audience, the sound was dead on arrival.

But the Met is blessed with good sound. And it’s blessed with an orchestra that is a marvel, the result of years of devotion and care by its longtime music director, James Levine. This immensely flexible ensemble not only plays a staggering number of opera performances every year, but it also presents concerts at Carnegie Hall with repertoire ranging from Mozart to Elliott Carter. On New Year’s Day we had the privilege of hearing Simon Rattle conduct “Pelléas et Mélisande” with his wife Magdalena Kožená singing Mélisande. The sound emerging from the pit was luminous and subtly detailed, and the voices onstage were clear and unforced. Knowing that I would soon be working with the same orchestra in my rhythmically tricky “Nixon in China” I emailed Simon and asked him how he liked working with the Met Orchestra. He responded immediately that it was “the experience of a lifetime.” He loved the players and was particularly taken by their good humor in working long hours. Some orchestral musicians in the US and elsewhere can be tough customers, especially those who labor away in the back of large string sections and feel that their efforts rarely matter. As a conductor you can experience their attitude when you walk off the podium after a performance. The audience may be going berserk with pleasure, but the back section violinists will just sit there with grim, stony expressions on their faces.

But the Met Orchestra players, even though they play in the relative obscurity of the orchestra pit, seem to exude a sense of pride and pleasure in what they are doing. On my first day of orchestra readings more than a few of the players came up to me and expressed their excitement over the project and told me that they’d downloaded the recording and listened to it in advance of the rehearsal. This is something you don’t often hear coming from the majority of orchestra players.

Getting a new production of an opera up and running is a complicated matter. The staging rehearsals usually involve only the cast, a few hugely talented and overworked rehearsal pianists, the conductor and the director and stage managers. In the case of “Nixon in China,” these piano rehearsals started on December 27, the day of the Great Blizzard of 2010. By the time the production opens on February 2 there will have been over a hundred hours of staging rehearsals. Of course not every opera gets this kind of treatment, but intense preparation of the staging is the way Peter Sellars always works. This pays off in many ways. Not only is the staging minutely detailed and subtly shaded, but also the endless repetitions of scenes make the singers musically confident. Many operas are performed with minimal attention to acting or carefully choreographed movement. I don’t know much about the early history of staging practices in eighteenth and nineteenth century opera, but I suspect that back then gesture and movement were pretty much left to the singers—with probably pretty awful results. Now operatic staging has swung almost too far in the other direction, with directors becoming hectically proactive and using the often-vague implications of a libretto to construct the wildest, frequently tendentious and absurd interpretations. But at least it’s no longer left to whimsy.

Simple economics make the apportioning of rehearsal time between staging and orchestral preparation inherently unjust. The orchestra is available for a depressingly small amount of rehearsal time. In familiar repertoire—and that does indeed make up the great majority of most opera houses, the Met included—this is adequate, as a “Tosca” or a “Rigoletto” may require only a few rehearsals to whip into shape. But with a tricky new score such as “Nixon in China” with its endless mine fields of shifting pulses and changing meters, the players have to cope with processing an enormous amount of information in a very small number of rehearsals. As of today (January 18th) we have had the luxury of nearly eighty hours of piano staging rehearsals, but the orchestra has rehearsed for a total of less than nine hours. Next week I will have three three-hour sessions in the pit with the orchestra and all the cast. That will be the last chance to get the music as exact as we can before the final dress rehearsal, which occurs before an invited audience.

Under such pressed circumstances the conductor’s job is to intuit which problematic passages will eventually take care of themselves (through the natural musical grasp of the players) and which will never be right without slow, laborious rehearsing. It’s been my experience that with new and unfamiliar music the very best orchestral musicians love to take “baby steps,” to go slowly through a passage. Pressing them forward at the “correct” tempo when they’ve not yet had time to process the notes in front of them or understand how those notes relate to what’s coming from the rest of the orchestra creates a stressful and counterproductive situation.

What separates an average orchestra from a virtuoso one like the Met’s is the learning curve. The Met’s players are so instinctively sharp that although a first reading of a passage may sound ragged and full of wrong notes and missed rhythms, the second pass will yield a vast improvement as the players process the information. But even with this exceptional learning curve, there is much work to be done. “Nixon” requires a kind of video-game alertness and attention that only familiarity with the music can give, and that familiarity will have to establish itself in a very short span of time.

Comments (40)

Alexander Prior
January 19, 2011

Good luck! Sounds like you're having a very busy but cracking time! Wish I was there! I know it will be just awesome!

Elena
January 19, 2011

So exciting. "Nixon in China" in the Met will be something to see. That venue is like its own being. Someday I hope to see one of your operas live!

Elena
January 19, 2011

(neoantennae.blogspot.com)

Maria Nockin
January 19, 2011

I very much look forward to the Live in HD mov ie of Nixon. Wish I could see it in the house. Maybe I will be able to do that sometime here in the Southwest. Meanwhile, I will be reviewing the live transmission in www.mvdaily.com.

Andrew
January 19, 2011

Best of luck to you! I'll be watching from a remote movie theatre in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. . .

Kay Kelly
January 19, 2011

This will be the 4th production of "Nixon..." that I've seen (my daughter and I will be at the Met opening night). The first was in L.A., the second in Portland, the third in Vancouver, B.C. Each has been stunning it's own, unique way. Thanks, Mr. Adams, for a work that always challenges, always enlightens and always beguiles.

Kit
January 19, 2011

Thanks for this fresh, insightful and fascinating glimpse of life behind the scenes at the Met. Given your experience of working on both sides of the Atlantic, it would be very interesting to hear how your experience of Nixon in China at the Met compares with that of the ENO production.

Antoine Leboyer
January 19, 2011

So much looking forwards to it. I am coming from Switzerland to the US for work but ensured that I would be in NY for the premiere. I last heard the piece in the same production in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny, a much smaller venue than the Met.

Sam H.
January 20, 2011

John,

I make videos that are oversized and not unduly refined. I'd like to ask for your permission to compose some graphics set to Lollapalooza.

Here's my work:
http://cargocollective.com/bgirl

-Sam

BarbaraB.
January 22, 2011

I recall your earlier blog on concentration, and along with this current description of processes, the clear demonstration of your keen awareness that both focused intention and effortlessness are part of the equation of mastery. In the June blog you used an image of Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy in her posture of Royal Ease. She is also known as Hearer of Cries of the World.

I have had the rare privilege of seeing you conduct, among other works, El Nino and Flowering Tree.
I am thrilled that, miraculously, I will again be in NYC to see Nixon in China. I will also be one of those people, come hell or high water (or avalanche) that will also hear you and Peter speak at the Met prior to the opening. Your work with Peter Sellars, and his clear, profound insights also demonstrates your mutual devotion and belief that the sustaining elements in our lives are based in compassion. We are all so grateful.

David Rodwin
January 27, 2011

Got my tickets for the HD Broadcast on the 12th. We'll be watching from LA.

Merde!

Ryan Mannion
January 30, 2011

John,

Thanks for all your insights on your blog and for signing my Minimalist Jukebox flyer at Le Poisson Rogue tonight! http://www.2f2f.net/images/photos/minimalists.jpg - looking forward to seeing Nixon in China at the Met!

Ryan

Adriel Bettelheim
February 4, 2011

We're coming up from Washington to see the Saturday matinee during the run. Excited for you and happy this work has made it to the Met.

Peter
February 8, 2011

Mr. Adams,
I am seeing the broadcast performance this Saturday and I am ridiculously excited! It's nice to get a perspective of an opera from the pit conductor and musicians' standpoint because I hope to one day play in a group this enthusiastic.
I am also writing my junior year term paper on your impact on modern American music and so far it's been a blast doing research and hunting down recordings!

ELS
February 8, 2011

I am so incredibly excited to be seeing the performance via the live relay at the London IMAX at Charlie Chaplin Walk. I saw the ENO version too here. I find your blogs fascinating too! Kind regards!

Valpo Prof
February 9, 2011

Out here at Valparaiso University in Indiana, my humanities class on opera has been studying the work in preparation for seeing it together on HD Saturday. I saw it previously in St. Louis and Chicago, and am thrilled to have the Met production available for my students.

Lou Wigdor
February 9, 2011

A Nixon in China-related anecdote:

In honor of Nixon in China, John Adam’s celebrated opera, which will be simulcast in theatres/cinemas this Saturday, here’s a story about this writer’s own visit to South China in 2006, which revealed a surprising artifact of Nixon’s 1972 trip.

http://wigpen.blogspot.com/2011/02/nixon-in-china-artifact.html

Michael Sidoti
February 12, 2011

Listening to the live Met broadcast today - bravo, Mr. Adams! I had the pleasure of writing about your operas for a Music Research class last semester. Throughout my college career, I had wanted to explore your works; doing the research for that class was a joy, and I kicked myself for not having a more thorough listen to your music prior to that - cheers!

Orpheus Dude
February 13, 2011

Dear John, dear dear John,

I am sorry to cast a pall on your blog, but I must ask very seriously: How the hell did you decide to let James Maddalena sing Nixon at the Met?

I just listened to the broadcast and almost had to shut it off. I recorded it, but doubt if I shall listen to it again.

Maddalena's voice is in total shreds: the strain to reach notes, the slurring upwards to hopefully reach the correct pitch, so many times ending in failure with the hoped-for note flat, the constant wobble, the shortness of breath, the slurring and/or elimination of text, etc. He might be able to still pull off a role like Jack Hubbard in "Doctor Atomic," but I fear his Nixon days are long gone. He was in such vocal distress by the end of Act I that I was quite sure his cover must have been getting into costume and make-up to finish the opera.

Tell me: did you sanction in advance the lowering of Nixon's vocal line and the total elimination of several passages in the trio at the beginning of Act II, or was it just Maddalena's spontaneous attempt to keep going?

It was really, honestly painful to hear your beautiful opera sabotaged by such a dreadful performance.

The other singers ranged from above merely adequate (Mr. Brubaker had a few troubles, but managed to get through them quite well and did a lovely final act) to superb. I thought Russell Braun was absolutely ace (although I missed the sheer beauty of Sanford Sylvan's voice), and both women were as good as or even better than the cast on the Nonesuch recording (actually all five women - the Mao-ettes, too).

The chorus sounded spectacular (I could actually understand them - Alice Goodman must be so happy!), as did the orchestra.

Too bad Maddalena ruined it all. Why couldn't you have gotten Gerald Finley, or any number of younger baritones who could sing your music as you wrote it without undue stress, and give an entertaining, engrossing account of the role? Certainly the Met would have paid for whomever you chose. I just don't understand this allegiance to Maddalena.

I mean, your opera was probably seen in movie theatres and heard on the radio today by more people than will ever experience it live. I would think you would want it to sound its best. Sadly, it was far from it.

P.S. Out of curiosity, who was/is the cover for the role of Nixon?

Orpheus Dude
February 13, 2011

Dear John, dear dear John,

I am sorry to cast a pall on your blog, but I must ask very seriously: How the hell did you decide to let James Maddalena sing Nixon at the Met?

I just listened to the broadcast and almost had to shut it off. I recorded it, but doubt if I shall listen to it again.

Maddalena's voice is in total shreds: the strain to reach notes, the slurring upwards to hopefully reach the correct pitch, so many times ending in failure with the hoped-for note flat, the constant wobble, the shortness of breath, the slurring and/or elimination of text, etc. He might be able to still pull off a role like Jack Hubbard in "Doctor Atomic," but I fear his Nixon days are long gone. He was in such vocal distress by the end of Act I that I was quite sure his cover must have been getting into costume and make-up to finish the opera.

Tell me: did you sanction in advance the lowering of Nixon's vocal line and the total elimination of several passages in the trio at the beginning of Act II, or was it just Maddalena's spontaneous attempt to keep going?

It was really, honestly painful to hear your beautiful opera sabotaged by such a dreadful performance.

The other singers ranged from above merely adequate (Mr. Brubaker had a few troubles, but managed to get through them quite well and did a lovely final act) to superb. I thought Russell Braun was absolutely ace (although I missed the sheer beauty of Sanford Sylvan's voice), and both women were as good as or even better than the cast on the Nonesuch recording (actually all five women - the Mao-ettes, too).

The chorus sounded spectacular (I could actually understand them - Alice Goodman must be so happy!), as did the orchestra.

Too bad Maddalena ruined it all. Why couldn't you have gotten Gerald Finley, or any number of younger baritones who could sing your music as you wrote it without undue stress, and give an entertaining, engrossing account of the role? Certainly the Met would have paid for whomever you chose. I just don't understand this allegiance to Maddalena.

I mean, your opera was probably seen in movie theatres and heard on the radio today by more people than will ever experience it live. I would think you would want it to sound its best. Sadly, it was far from it.

P.S. Out of curiosity, who was/is the cover for the role of Nixon?

Robin
February 13, 2011

Maddalena did not ruin this sensational performance. Yes, vocally, he did struggle, especially in Act 1. But to my mind he managed as a actor to integrate his imperfections with the character he was portraying. If anything, his vocal struggles added another dimension to the stiff, nervous, at times awkward Nixon character. For me it worked, Maddalena's flaws and all.

And what a superb performance by the chorus, orchestra, and all the female singers.

traveller will
February 13, 2011

I saw the performance last night on HD at a cinema in London. A wonderful evening. Seeing the opera for the first time after listening to the recording so many times, so many things now make much more sense.

I hope we will see you in London again soon.

Daryl Broley
February 13, 2011

Bravi tutti!! There have been a number of us up here in Calgary AB, Canada that have been waiting ot see the Met production on live streaming. We did: and we were all thrilled with the result.

Thanks for a marvelous morning (11:00 MST) and afternoon of music!

Daryl

Debra Shapiro
February 13, 2011

Yesterday's simulcast was utterly brilliant (never had the opportunity to go the Met but love all the extras of watching on the big screen). The music is so wonderful and complex breathing into the performance a deep tension between east and west, the formality and discipline of the "people", and the pathologies of Nixon, Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, et al. I'm revisiting my history today as a result.

Anthony Quaglieri
February 15, 2011

I never take for granted the fact that I am watching a composer who wrote a great work, conduct great music with a great orchestra on a great stage with great soloists in a great city in a great country. And I did this while eating popcorn in a cineplex in a shopping mall in rural Florida. And it only cost me $24 plus $6 for popcorn. And, I'm old enough to remember the news about Nixon's visit to China. So, I don't know what could be more perfect.

I noticed Maddalena's voice also - but I thought he sounded just like Nixon! It was stunning; he was even sweating like Nixon.

I feel so grateful. Thank you Mr. Adams.

Anthony Quaglieri
February 15, 2011

I never take for granted the fact that I am watching a composer who wrote a great work, conduct great music with a great orchestra on a great stage with great soloists in a great city in a great country. And I did this while eating popcorn in a cineplex in a shopping mall in rural Florida. And it only cost me $24 plus $6 for popcorn. And, I'm old enough to remember the news about Nixon's visit to China. So, I don't know what could be more perfect.

I noticed Maddalena's voice also - but I thought he sounded just like Nixon! It was stunning; he was even sweating like Nixon.

I feel so grateful. Thank you Mr. Adams.

Barbara B.
February 15, 2011

With much joy and celebration of you!
Happiest of birthdays!
With infinite gratitude.
"Understand that you have within yourself herds of oxen, flocks of sheep and herds
of goats... Understand that in you are even the birds of the sky. And marvel not if we
say that these are within you, but understand that you yourself are another little world
and have within you the sun, moon and stars."
...from Christian theologian Origen ( circa 185-253)

Sharon Alderman
February 16, 2011

I am still reeling from having watched the HD simulcast here in Salt Lake City. I am still trying to think of why I was so moved by Nixon in China. Is it that I am old enough to recall the actual event? Was it the opera itself? Peter Sellar's excellent direction? (I am particularly grateful for the Alex Katz-like close ups in the first scene. Right then I knew I was in for something special. And I was right.)

Anyway, I understand that this is your birthday and if you could actually feel how thrilled I am to have watched this excellent productiion, it would make your birthday brighter. I hope you have many, many more and that you keep composing so I can hear more and more.

Thanks for Saturday!

Clayton Conger
February 21, 2011

Mr. Adams,
I think the novel/motion picture "Broke Back Mountain" would be a good subject for an opera.

David T.
February 28, 2011

Dear Mr. Adams. I listened to a broadcast on ABC Classic FM (Australia).

What an opera and what a wonderful score.

with regards from the antipodean realm.

Orpheus Dude
March 3, 2011

To Clayton Conger (above): "Brokeback Mountain" has already been commissioned by New York City Opera for an opera by Charles Charles Wuorinen. You can read about it here:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/06/09/us-stage-brokeback-idUSSP4039520080609

Carter T
March 5, 2011

Saw the re-broadcast two nights ago in Emeryville (near JA's hometown). Counted three under 50 yr olds in the 200 person audience, Pixar folks probably.

The rest of us were 60 and beyond, once Nixon haters all I suppose. However the personalities were all treated favorably, even Henry the K for the most part.

Best of all was the audible group gasp as Act 2 ended. That was one powerful scene! Would have loved to seen this production live at the Met. But HD is a wonderful option for those of us in the rest of the world.

Paul
March 11, 2011

From DCArtsBeat.com:

http://www.dcartsbeat.com/2011/02/nixon-in-china.html

john emmons
March 17, 2011

I saw the HD broadcast in Emeryville. Such a luxury to sit "in the front row," although nothing can replace "in person."
You should know that everytime you appeared on screen the Emeryville audience would applaud - one of our local musical heros.
I disagree with the above comments about Maddelena contribution. He embodied the character so completely that, although voice is important, the signs of strain were minor.
I also disagree with the NY Times author of the article about the discrepancies between being there and your opera. The article was interesting, but did not shed any light on your opera - which starts with the actual events but raises them to a symbolic level which is intrinsically/artistically coherent and worthy. You did an amazing job of digesting and transforming a moment in history that is still relevant.
Thanks.

Jennifer
April 3, 2011

Orpheus,

Baritone Chris Pedro Trakas was the cover for the role of Nixon - phenomenal singer and actor, it's a pity he wasn't allowed some performances.

Jan Kennedy
April 17, 2011

Batter my Heart is one of the most beautiful arias ever written, IMO. Thank you for it and Dr. Atomic.

I watched this video over and over about a huge environmental assault and could hear in it an opera by you.

http://www.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,876880045001_2062814,00.html

I can hope! Thank you.

Rainer Steinhoff
October 29, 2011

I liked "Nixon in China" at the Cincinnati Opera some years back.

And I've been thinking that "The Glass Menagerie" would make a good opera.

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