History Lessons: Nixon and Gandhi visit the MET

Grant Chu Covell

[February 2012.]

Suppose you’re writing an opera and want it to run at the Metropolitan Opera. For best results, make it minimal with a political subject. The 2010-11 slate included John Adams’ 1987 Nixon in China and the current season raised the curtain on Philip Glass’ 1979 Satyagraha. I’m hesitant to call these classics, but filled seats at Lincoln Center lend weight to their importance. There will be other more enthusiastic commentators than me: I missed Adams’ Doctor Atomic (2005) in the theatre and barely endured its DVD incarnation, and considering Glass’ “Portrait Trilogy,” I would have preferred either Einstein on the Beach or Ahknaten. Their recordings made a bigger impression.

I recall when the bright shavings from Nixon in China appeared. The Nonesuch LP, The Chairman Dances (1985), was an effervescent change to a steady diet of Boulez and Carter. Adams’ foxtrot became a guilty pleasure. I thought that this minimalistic bauble neatly blending pop and humor in symphonic taffeta would spark imitations. My dreams quickly faded. Heard in recording, the complete Nixon in China disappointed: overlong, not all that clever and altogether too serious.

Both Adams’ and Glass’ styles have evolved over the years. Shaker Loops (1978/83) remains my favorite Adams composition even though I routinely check in with the composer in hope of hearing something special. Adams’ operas have disappointed, The Death of Klinghofer (1990) especially, which I attribute to Alice Goodman’s directionless librettos. I wish Adams would try Aeschylus or Sophocles instead. Nixon and Klinghofer were enlivened by Peter Sellars, he of loud shirts and gravity-defying hair. Recent publicity suggests Adams vies to become an elder statesman whereas Sellars refuses to grow up.

Attending Nixon in China the final night of that season’s run (Feb. 19, 2010), I concocted fresh observations. Only a descendent of Sibelius could have written the music accompanying the President’s plane landing. At least two arias contain the seeds that make Bernhard Lang unique: News has a kind of mystery, sung by an excited President (James Maddalena) upon arriving in China, and Whip her to death, part of an enacted tableau, The Red Detachment of Women, where Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) doubles as a brutal land manager and assaults a girl. Given Adams’ training and arpeggio-rich language, there were numerous Wagner and Strauss nods. Perhaps the most obvious is in Act II, Scene II’s Tropical Storm.

The live experience delineated introspective vs. public scenes, even though the reminiscing Act III still fizzled. Soloists and orchestra were in excellent form. Who could ask for better? Maddalena commanded this President — difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Kathleen Kim delivered Chiang Ch’ing’s coloratura aria, a wonderful, absurdist showpiece, I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung. I now see Janis Kelly when I try to picture Pat Nixon.

Nixon opens and closes with upward scales, and Satyagraha relies extensively upon them. The “Portrait Trilogy”’s least aggressive entry lacks percussion and brass, in keeping with its non-violent subject. Perhaps I prefer Einstein and Ahknaten simply because they are louder and more percussive. Sung in Sanskrit, the English translations were projected onto the stage supplanting the house’s usual title methodology.

In the resourceful production (Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch), it did not perplex that the unintelligible texts and stage action were independent. The alert audience could focus on the music, the projected translations or the cast. The gigantic puppets were ingenious. Onstage performers (Skills Ensemble) manipulated newspaper to create superhuman animals and origami.

On November 4, 2011, Richard Croft was superlative as M.K. Gandhi, fluid throughout the entire evening. His supple tenor did not tire, even when he did little more than wed Sanskrit to an ascending Phrygian scale for minutes on end. Glass’ music is tranquil, velvety and relaxing. I would venture to suggest the MET orchestra actually likes it.

Audiences the evenings I attended seemed younger than the hall’s usual crowd. Who among us lived during either Nixon’s or Gandhi’s lifetimes? Satyagraha throws light on Gandhi’s early years in South Africa (1893-1914). My generation’s introduction to Gandhi was Richard Attenborough’s 1982 movie with Ben Kingsley. Michael Steinberg’s notes for the 1987 Nonesuch Nixon release (9 97177-2) offer: “Surely there has been no audience member at any performance of Nixon in China … who has not heard Richard Nixon speak in actuality….”

Grand opera tends to simplify and idolize. Nixon makes it easy to forget Watergate. Who could have imagined our relationship with China would change so dramatically? Adams’ opera doesn’t help us today, whereas Glass’ still does. There have been more recent topical operas. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s larger-than-life Anna Nicole has been produced and recorded. At the other extreme, Curtis Hughes’ chamber opera Say It Ain’t So, Joe gave vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin singing roles. Who can predict what might endure, or if changing times will view these as relics. Speaking of relics, the Internet permits us to discover President Nixon at the piano.