I was thinking last night, on the train ride home from the Théâtre du Châtelet after seeing John Adams’ Nixon in China, about how little I knew about classical music before I went to college. Sure, I had played the piano for a long time, so composers’ names were familiar to me, but vocal music? Not a clue. I remember getting accepted to the Vocal Academy for High School Students for the summer before my senior year of high school and having to scramble to learn eight art songs…and then there were people there who were singing Mozart and Handel arias already. The summer after that, before I went to off to Northwestern, I did an opera scenes program in Portland, where I got to be in what is still one of my favorite operas ever, Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. I discovered stuff that summer that I would never have imagined before: Dominick Argento’s Songs About Spring, Bartok’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, Berlioz’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (Béatrice et Bénédict), the Garden Scene quartet from Verdi’s Falstaff…to say it was culture shock would be an understatement.
(This thing blows my mind, still. At the end they’re all singing completely different notes and words, but the same rhythm! A CAPPELLA!)
Anyway. What happens when you get to college-level music school is that you are suddenly inundated with an enormous amount of new information and repertoire–and you are totally ill-equipped to handle it. I am constantly re-visiting or re-discovering music that I heard or performed or tried to learn my freshman or sophomore year of college, and realizing that it’s not nearly as weird or difficult as I thought it was. Things that other people were good at have become the things that I’m good at. After years of high-level choral singing, sight-reading, ear-training, music theory, a musicology minor, and all the rest and so forth, I am a good musician–but I wasn’t when I was seventeen.
I was the only one of my group of opera-going friends (for a change, singers and Americans outnumbered saxophonists and Canadians!) who had seen Nixon in China before. But the first time was in 2006, and at the time, John Adams was the height of insane, musically-speaking. We did his choral work Harmonium in choir that year as well; it was all minimalist and repetitive and hard to follow, and I hated it.
But I’m listening to that piece now, and while I think it would still be difficult, I can picture what the notes I’m hearing look like, and they’re not anything revolutionary (not to mention it’s a beautiful piece). And it was the same way with Nixon in China last night. It’s undoubtedly a devilishly hard opera, but now when faced with it, I can understand it instead of just listening in awe and incomprehension. I think maybe part of it is that in the intervening six years, I have heard a lot of totally weird contemporary music, and Nixon in China is practically Rodgers and Hammerstein compared to say, Berio’s Sequenza III.
In this particular production of Nixon in China, the singing was unbelievably good. I think maybe that was part of the problem the first time, because with a piece as difficult and rhythmic as that one, the singers have to be totally comfortable or it looks hard. Alfred Kim, the tenor who sang Mao Zedong, opened his mouth and an enormous focused wall of sound came out–and that is a punishing sing for a tenor. It could be so painful, and he made it sound natural. Ditto Franco Pomponi who played Nixon–it’s a high baritone role that could be pushed and uncomfortable, and he looked like he was speaking normally while he was singing–and Kyung Chun Kim as Chou En-Lai. They all looked so settled into their roles that they could do it in their sleep. Astounding.
The women fared slightly worse, but that was okay because they were so FAMOUS. Let’s be honest now. Would I have bothered to see this production of Nixon in China if it hadn’t been for June Anderson as Pat Nixon (holy crap, she’s on my recording of Candide! And Carmina Burana! And La Juive!) and Sumi Jo as Madame Mao (holy crap, SHE’S SUMI JO!)? Probably not. I would have missed out on some great stuff if it hadn’t been for a couple of famous names. We laughed a little at intermission because at the end of Act I, the men and the exceptional chorus (whose diction was the clearest I have ever heard on an operatic chorus) were moving normally despite singing intensely rhythmic music, and June Anderson was conducting with her whole body. But except for a few pushed high notes, she sounded great, and those of us who were familiar with her were just so thrilled to be seeing her live. I thought Sumi Jo struggled a little through her opening aria (though I couldn’t stop watching her when she WASN’T singing; through the whole ballet in Act II, she was just sitting there in her sunglasses and pantsuit and there was all of this great dancing going on, and my eyes kept sliding over to where she was sitting to see what she was doing. And she was never doing anything), but anybody would, really, and then she really sang the living daylights out of Act III–plus we got to hear Sumi Jo say “We’ll show those motherf*ckers how to dance!” Hallie and I laughed, but we’re pretty sure none of the French people in the audience knew it was funny. (Ditto the bit when Pat Nixon is getting acquainted with Chinese culture and a pig goes by, and all of the chorus runs after it going “Pig! Pig! Pigpigpig!” We couldn’t stop laughing.)
(Um, hi, this is last night’s performance. I don’t know where this video came from–somebody must have posted it the second the show was over last night–but how awesome is Sumi Jo? They let her be a much more glamorous Madame Mao than the character usually is. Also, the dancing was incredible.)
I was also really impressed by the way they handled the last scene, which is sort of a mish mosh of texts that don’t necessarily relate to each other; Chairman and Madame Mao are talking to each other, Pat and Richard Nixon are talking to each other, and Chou En-Lai is talking to himself. In the production I saw in Chicago, they were all getting ready for bed, and most of the singing was done sitting on the edge of a bed, or standing near it. It was pretty static and I was bored. But at Châtelet, it was really quite dynamic to watch, even if I couldn’t always understand the words, and even if I didn’t understand why Nixon was climbing up the jungle gym-like structure in the background…whatever. The music in that section is just stunning.
I think…I think I might love Nixon in China. My eighteen-year-old self would be astounded.
(I couldn’t get the whole cast in, but I managed to get Sumi Jo and Franco Pomponi and Kyung Chun Kim and Peter Sidhom, who sang Kissinger, some of the dancers and a couple adorable children who had trouble all waving their flags in the same direction during “This Is Prophetic.”)