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I managed to crowd my Opera season into two evenings a few weeks ago, no longer able to afford the tariff for a full calendar of thrills.  As it happens both were about Oriental despots or, to put it more exactly, about Oriental despots meeting  Western despots.

The first was Verdi’s Atilla, centering on Attila the Hun’s post-sack savagery in  Aquileia and his surge towards Rome being stopped  after a meeting with Pope Leo in 452.  It is one of the young Verdi’s early offerings and produced for the famed Fenice in Venice in March of 1846 then in full Risorgimento fervor.  The second was John Adam’s Nixon in China, imagining the famous 1972 meeting between President Nixon and Chairman Mao.  It is also an early opera, this time by the American John Adams, who wrote it at Peter Sellars behest for the Huston Opera in 1987.

Verdi’s libretto was written by Temistocle Solera, a member of the anti-Austrian resistance, who had also written Nabucco and I Lombardi for him — all interpreted as alluding to current political events in Italy.  The librettist for Nixon In China is Alice Goodman.  Much of it is done in rhyming couplets, with text taken from contemporaneous sources. Although a poet before she wrote the Nixon libretto, and not particularly political, politics was forced upon her, and the end of her libretto career,  by her second Adams’ piece,  The Death of Klinghoffer, for which she was reviled by many, particularly Jews, as she was herself. She has since become an Anglican minister.  Nixon and Klinghoffer are not Adams’ only socially conscious offerings; his 1989 “Wound Dresser” from Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser and later opera, Dr. Atomic, certainly qualify. 

Despite the great crescendos of sound, obligatory for all opera and which both handle con molto brio, the music couldn’t be more widely different. Verdi fans will recognize and thrill to the great choral style and martial use of brass and woodwinds.  In Adams, nothing will be found of Verdi. What may be appreciated will not depend on appreciation of hundred-year-ago musical styles, and may depend on a zeal to leave that behind.

As to the shared theme of despotism, Verdi assumes his audience knows Attila, and his reputation. Though he is treated with enough complexity to keep him from being a caricature the audience is nevertheless treated to his death, and importantly, at the hands of a woman exacting revenge for father and country.  As all opera up until recently, emotional tension, usually of several sorts — love/hate, slavery/freedom, honesty/deception– are elemental to both the story and the music.  Adams also assumes his audience knows his men, though if he thinks of them as despots he doesn’t let on.  Although Mao died 4 years later (and Nixon resigned in disgrace only months later) no artistic liberty is taken to make an operatic point. In fact.  No deaths here. No emotional tension — and I don’t  count Pat Nixon’s nostalgia as that.  Rather, we have a celebration. Taking at face value what the most zealous of Mao’s and Nixon’s legacy-focused PR agents would wish.   Visualize great men and world peace.

Dr. Death, Henry Kissinger, does get some bad press in the ballet as his look-alike plays the lecherous landlord [about 4:35 of this cut], groping an immobilized young woman. Even this minor transgression was deplored by Kissinger’s friends after seeing the Metropolitan Opera performance.  For an account of their objections and Tom Scocca’s pithy responses, see Slate, here. 

The expectation in virtually all classic operas, especially those of Verdi, of a great crime, a great love, great jealousy, betrayal, retribution and vengeance do not peep through the curtains in the Adams/Goodman/Sellars offering.  Even though great crimes were associated with both Nixon and Mao, that does not interest the writers.  This is not an exposition of human enthrallment to the seven deadly sins, but an exposition of and meditation on the four central characters — almost a collective character study.  No dark maunderings.  Madam Mao can sing of her power dominant, but there is no foreboding.  In place of revenge, and violated trust in Attila we get, if you can believe it, nostalgia — Pat Nixon for the Main Streets of her imagined youth–,  gushing paeans to peaceful ideals — by Nixon no less, and exultations of power

Verdi uses the real story (even if only apocryphal) of Pope Leo’s persuading Attila in 452 to spare  Rome and the subsequent withdrawal of the barbarians from Italy to allegorize the contemporary struggle (1840s) of Venetia, with Venice at its center,  to free themselves from the Austro-Hungarians.  As importantly, he puts a woman, Obadella, in it to take a womanly revenge (killing Attila several years early and in a different country from his actual end) for her father’s death and the rape of her nation.  There is no allegory in Nixon In China.  Instead it has been called one of the “CNN operas,” written about recent, large, newsworthy events. There are certainly points-of-view from the composer and librettist but they refer to the event itself, not to another. The women here, Pat Nixon and Madam Mao have their own places in the piece.  Madam Mao’s famous and murderous fury is not included.

The ending, far from a satisfying operatic stabbing, in which the scales of justice, after much musical to-do, are re-balanced, is a vision of shared mellowing.

The composer has said,

“I think of the opera over the course of three acts…as a movement from extreme outer-directed, extroverted, public persona activity toward a more inward, reflective state. … In the final act, the focus of both text and music is their vulnerability, their desperate desire to roll back time to when life was
simpler and feelings less compromised.”

Critic Matthew Davies has commented that, “The final act focuses on what the characters have in common – their shared humanity. The characters’ conflicts are not resolved in any way, but are merely brought out into the open.”

Now I’m no music major, and though I can carry a tune,  I can’t talk about the technique or scaffolding upon which that depends.  But there is something I just don’t get about the Adams/Glass minimalism in music, in which rhythms, pulsings and layerings are the mainstays and old-fashioned “tunefulness” is barely given a nod. What is missing for me is the body-sense linkage.  Almost all “thrilling” music of pre-modern opera somehow gets up under your ribs, and lifts you up.  There is a near physical sensation of soaring, of climbing along with the rising, tone filled voice; there is often an powerful sense of surprise, even awe, when a certain progression of notes, sung with power and clarity, takes an unexpected turn, like the feeling of the giant-drop in a roller coaster.  This, it seems to me, can not happen with the militantly non tuneful manner of minimalism.

[[I have no idea of David Schwarz’ musical credentials, but here’s what he has to say in his thesis on Post Modernism in Nixon and China:

“The music “goes nowhere”; triadic harmonies, dominant seventh chords, atonal tone clusters, etc. pervade the music, but never as elements of one compositional principle. And yet the music also asserts the illusion of forward motion through incessantly reiterated rhythmic values and dynamics (crescendo and diminuendo that might suggest left-to-right diachronic motion). The opera is at once an expansive, continuous spectacle and a static, discontinuous pastiche.”]]

There are physical responses to be sure.  For me they are chiefly of anxiety — produced by single notes, or a pair, pulsed over and over again, often to a quickening rhythm — like a train picking up speed but never settling, like a raven repeatedly cawing, like tinnitus rising and falling.  There was one point in the promising prelude, which seemed to show-case what the minimalist sound could best express, when I thought I was going to have to cover my ears, or flee from the impact of the sawing, repeated high notes.

There are times when the repetition + layering can create a wondrous sort of rapture — as in a meditative trance.  The closing part of the ballet in act I is lyrical and lovely (though here all instrumental and not vocal.) There are moments when the anxiety I speak of is intended and useful, as in the whipping scenes in the The Red Detachment of Women offered to the guests by Madam Mao.  Pat Nixon’s visceral reaction to what she is witnessing is exactly ours. But the close of Act I, Nixon’s toast “This is The Hour,” proceeds at such break-neck speed it seems to come out of musical theater such as Rent (a re-write of Puccini’s Boheme) or Stomp, or, as the San Francisco Opera staged it, with acrobatics on the tables and serious synchronized dancing, like a big number in Grease or Chicago, not an opera with a glorious voice or two lifting above everything as, for example, either of the two party scenes in Verdi’s Traviata

The effect for me of the lack of Verdian-like tunefulness  (much less the glories of the Bel Canto era) is that even the arias in Adams seem like recitatives, though sung with more force and power. An opera of recitatives with some choral recitatives thrown in as a fourth dimension of resonance and we have to ask: is this opera, or perhaps a new species, evolving to something we can’t yet see ?

I know this sounds like an old opera fuddy-duddy complaining that everything won’t stay the same.  So be it, though I plead not fully guilty.  Phillip Glass’ Satyagrah, to name one,  I would certainly return to.  Art comes from artists who come from the times they live in, reflecting through their creativity what they make of the world around them. The audience reflects back to them.  In the great days of La Scala the audiences pelted the stage with ripe fruit if they didn’t get a tune they could sing. Now we seem to be expected to sit and appreciate what is declared to be art by our betters.  As for me, some of the “new” music I could listen to for hours; some I’ve now learned, I’ll have to get up and save my ears.

Take for instance the lovely beginnings of Adams The Dharma at Big Sur, and see if you want to sit through the end, Sri Moonshine, (say about 10 minutes in.)  If this were my moonshine at Big Sur I’d flee back to the bars of San Francisco as Kerouac famously detailed in own, Big Sur.

And were it still culturally appropriate I’d be among those who pelted the stage for making the meeting between two international terrorists into a paean for peace.

When I’m told that Adams or Glass or Ms. Not-Yet-Named has a new opera, I’ll give it a go.  Verdi, I’ll go back to again and again, meanwhile hoping that some new opera, telling a great story of human emotional conflict with rib grabbing, throat stopping, eye dripping music, is coming to a theater near me this coming season.