Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Adams in Long Beach

March 21, 2010

Act II of Nixon in China at Long Beach Opera
Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2010

Loving opera is often about learning to accept the imperfections in things. Take John Adams’ Nixon in China, which received its second production in this area this weekend after nearly two decades. This time it was from the never-say-die Long Beach Opera company, which has managed to bring music to life almost by sheer force of will at times even in these rockiest of economic waters. And yet, even in this admittedly small-scale production, the brilliance of the piece shines through. It is both a spectacle, and a deeply satisfying work of art that takes on very big topics with perspective and insight. Nixon in China starts out with the processional arrival of Nixon’s aircraft in 1972 and his introduction to China’s premiere Chou En Lai. This is followed by scenes of philosophical and political debate as well as a number of speeches about good will and history. By the start of Act II, though, things become more and more surreal and metaphorical with the same polemical debates now reenacted in another set of events during Pat Nixon’s choreographed visit to sites in the Chinese countryside. Eventually, Act III develops as an extended reflection on how these primary characters became who they are. Alice Goodman’s beautiful libretto may be one of the best English language librettos outside of the collaborators’ of Benjamin Britten. This is not an opera of plot as much as one of ideas specifically tackling how we all can get along when sometimes we don't even share the same language or ideological frame of reference.

By now Nixon in China has received numerous productions all over the world including several locations in North America. And, still to this date, the original Peter Sellars and Mark Morris production continues to cast a very long shadow on everyone that has followed in their footsteps. Even in Long Beach, the three-hour work comes complete with a plane fuselage and gangway in Act I. However, designer Wilhelm Holzbauer and director Peter Pawlik do manage some of their own surprises such as Mao’s three secretaries appearing as floor lamps. The sets are minimal, but striking in their color scheme and layout. What’s more, LBO clearly pulled out all the stops by their standards recruiting a sizable chorus and full orchestra for these performances. Company General Director Andreas Mitisek, led the ensemble in a spirited and caring performance. Everyone is miked throughout the show, but anyone with a passing appreciation of Adams’ music knows this is not unusual. Vocally, most of the cast was solid. I particularly liked Suzan Hanson’s Pat Nixon who held her own against Ani Maldjian’s commanding Chiang Ch’ing in Act II.

Granted, this is not a dream performance of Nixon in China by any means. Much could be improved upon with more resources and time. But for an important work not often seen in this area, this production is one that is well worth seeing. There is one other performance on March 28 in Long Beach.



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