Perfectly Clear

Nixon in China takes minimalism to the max

Jun 23, 2004 at 4:00 am
Most minimalist classical music is boring, pretentious crap. Among the millions of words written about this modern school of classical music, one word is conspicuously missing: beautiful. The surprise, then, about Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' production of modern minimalist composer John Adams' 1987 opera Nixon in China, is that it's mostly a night of shimmering, exhilarating, sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful music.

Minimalist composition is simple. Composers take patterns and repeat them over and over and over and -- you get the idea. The patterns vary slightly over long stretches of time. The best minimalist music written in the past few decades has come from trance and electronica artists composing for raves. Most minimalist music written by classical composers lacks the rhythmic intensity and supple spine of good electronica. In classical music, the style had its moment of popularity in the 1970s and '80s. Nixon in China is a product of that moment.

The opera's plot is based on the February 1972 visit of then-President Richard Nixon, an arch anti-communist, to Red China. It was the first official contact between the governments since Mao Zedong and his revolutionary communist cronies took over the country in 1949. But this is not a CNN opera. By focusing on the motives and actions of the dreamers and power brokers present at the historic summit, librettist Alice Goodman has honed the published words of the historical characters involved into a rumination on the differences between dictatorships and democracies and the values and ideals of the kinds of people who run them.

From the opening moments, in which Chinese peasants practicing tai chi evolve into a Red Army brigade singing the show's rousing chorus of Mao's "Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Rules of Attention," it's amazing how well it all works. A doddering Mao vacillates between revolutionary slogans and spaced-out philosophic aphorisms while his wife, Jiang Qing, is sung as a vicious, shrill and controlling political martinet. Their three secretaries spout ideology and protect the leaders of both nations from contact with the grim reality of peasant life, as personifications of the intimidation implicit in daily life in an ideology-driven totalitarian state. Among the Chinese, only Zhou Enlai, China's premier at the time -- the man who set up the visit -- is able to escape from his public role and wonder at the effects of what he has wrought.

In a show highlighted by Sean Curran's silky choreography and a stage set by Allen Moyer and video designer Wendall Harrington that includes images of the actual event played out on a dozen TV sets, the few light moments emanate from Robert Orth's glowingly nerdish Nixon. Orth artfully balances Tricky Dick's ungainliness and physical eccentricities against his seriousness of purpose and concern for the practical work he hopes to accomplish. His singing (characterized on his Web site as "the best baritone in his price range") is crisp and to the point. Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, the first lady, carries much of the dramatic weight of the show, as she portrays the reactions of the average American: horrified by her perceptions of cold evil in the work of the Maoists and at the same time optimistic that her husband is about to do something great that will assure his positive treatment in as-yet-unwritten history books.

Minimalist music is exceptionally difficult to sing. It has no melody in the traditional sense. The singers have to rely heavily on increasing and decreasing levels of intensity in their performances and the occasional interspersing of short bursts of variation in the musical patterns. The orchestra carries much more of the burden of creating drama than is usual. So it's not surprising that the stars of this production are conductor Marin Alsop and the crack crew of Saint Louis Symphony musicians under her baton.

An accomplished modernist, Alsop has worked often with Philip Glass, the best-known minimalist composer. "Glass is writing 'See Spot run'; Adams is writing Anna Karenina," those present at the conductor's introduction to the opera heard her remark in response to a question about the difference between the two composers. True to her words, Alsop approaches Adams' music the way Tolstoy approaches plot. The basis of the performance is the slow, steady accretion of musical detail and sub-rosa movement. The orchestra piles up wave upon wave of undulating textures and spiky patterns. In the end it all comes together like a meticulous and painstakingly erected classical-music equivalent of Phil Spector's wall of sound. The effect is magical and majestic, a stunning and uplifting performance much more akin to the throbbing power of Balinese gamelan music or Indian classical raga than the dry staccato of Western minimalism.