Monday, June 4, 2012

Douglas Messerlii | "Six Degrees of Insanity" (on Alice Goodman's, Peter Sellars' and John Adams" Nixon in China)

six degrees of insanity
by Douglas Messerli

Alice Goodman (libretto), Peter Sellars (director), John Adams (composer) Nixon in China / The
Metropolitan Opera, New York / the production I saw was a live, in HD, screening at the Rave Theater, Westchester, California

Although most of the critics who I read (Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, and Anne Midgette of The Washington Post) agreed that the Met's new production of Nixon in China was excellent and long overdue, there was a sense between the three that the plot of the work was static and that one character, in particular, Henry Kissinger (sung by Richard Paul Fink) was a figure of parody whereas the others were treated more seriously. In a piece by Max Frankel, published in The New York Times a couple of days before the live HD airing, the former editor of the Times—who was with Nixon in China and won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the trip—squarely asked the question which the other reviewers only intimated:

                 ...Why bother, as in Nixon, to lure us to a fictional
                 enterprise with contemporary characters and scenes
                 from an active memory bank? Why use actualities,
                 or the manufactured actualities of our television
                 screens and newspapers, to fuel the drama?

The answer, he feels, is "obvious but also treacherous," that the use of actual characters helps to "overcome the musty odor that inhabits many opera houses," drawing new audiences into the theater. But, Frankel continues, it brings other dangers with it:

                   The danger is that despite the verisimilitudes of text,
                   setting and costume, a viewer's grasp of events may
                   not match the fabric being woven onstage. What the
                   creators intend to be profundity may strike the knowing
                   as parody.

      Most of the reviewers agreed that the composer, writer, and director did give their figures a range of emotions, both serious and comic, and between acts, Winston Lord (of National Security) assured us that much of the talk between Nixon and Chairman Mao in the First Act was close to what actually was said in their meeting; but all also felt that the opera did move to a kind of parody in the Second Art performance of The Red Detachment of Women, in which Fink, the singer-actor who played Kissinger, also plays a lecherous, Simon Legree-like landowner who has stolen away a young maiden. Fink sings:

                                             She was so hot
                                             I was hard-put
                                             To be polite.
                                             When the first cut
                                             —Come on you slut!—
                                             Scored her brown skin
                                             I started in,
                                             Man upon hen!

Some characterized this scene as surreal and the last act as psychological, as if they were somehow different in tone from the more historicized events in the First Act.

         If nothing else, there was a sense that Nixon in China, without a narrative arc, was a bit of a rocky ride. Certainly, at times, while always enjoying the shimmering glory of the music, I too felt that way while watching it. Yet now that I've pondered it for while, I believe I was mistaken, that, in fact, the opera is highly structured and fairly coherent in its tone and presentation of characters.

     First of all, John Adams and Peter Sellars are never going to present something that works as a Verdi opera might. Although all may work with a complex weaving of historical events, Verdi's sense of drama is highly embedded in narrative, while Adams and team, postmodern in their approach, eschew what we might call "story."

     Nixon in China has "events," but there are presented in a series of tableaux, not unlike some medieval musical productions. Each character gets the chance to reveal his or her selves. But what Alice Goodman, Adams and Sellars are interested in is not so much the outer faces they present to the world, but what these figures are thinking and imagining within. And I think they would have to admit that every figure on their stage is, in one way or another, a bit unhinged; these are, after all—with the exception perhaps of Pat Nixon—people desperate for power. And all are on the edge of insanity.

     Even before we meet any of the major characters, the people of China speak in a strange manner that we comprehend is not quite rational thought, as they sing from the text of "The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention":

                             Prompt delivery directly to authorities of all items
                                  confiscated from landlords.
                             Do not damage crops.
                             Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.
                             Pay for everything you damage.

As they chant, "The people are the heroes now," even if these "heroes" are highly manipulated and controlled.

     Out of the sky drops the Nixons' Spirit of 76, and no sooner does the President descend the airstair, shaking the hand of Premier Chou En-lai, than he begins inwardly calculating the great results of this journey as the filming catches him just in time for the evening news broadcasts in the USA, he hilariously singing out his fascination with his own acts: "News! News! News!

                                          News has a kind of mystery;
                                          When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
                                          On this bare field outside Peking
                                          Just now, the whole world was listening

James Maddalena, who has now sung this role in hundreds of performances, is an amazing actor, who brings off those jowl-shaking absurdities quite brilliantly.

     Nixon's and Kissinger's meeting with Premier Chou (Russell Braun) and Chairman Mao (Robert Brubaker) in the next scene is perhaps the most absurd of the entire opera, as the two powerful leaders speak in a series of alternating gnomic jokes, apothegms, and, in Nixon's case, simple American verbal blunders. As Mao becomes more and more incomprehensible ("Founders come first / Then profiteers") in sayings parroted by a wonderful trio of assistants, Nixon attempts his linguistic twists spun from what he believes the Chairman might be saying. It all reminds me, a bit, of the other Peter Seller's performance as the totally innocent and ignorant Chance in the film Being There, where he spouts meaningless sentences interpreted by others to be full of profound significance. Mao and Nixon, one a bit senile, the other humorless and often depressed, hit it off beautifully in their mindless chatter, while the more rational Kissinger proclaims to be unable to understand anything, and the Premier sits silently in sufferance.

      What that meeting accomplished, an issue clearly of importance in this opera, is questionable. But surely we can feel, and, in Adams' delicious scoring, we can hear the growing friendliness of all figures as they swill down Mai-tai after Mai-tai with toast upon toast. Again, non-drinker Kissinger misses out on all the glorious insanity of the evening.

      In Act II we get a chance to see Pat Nixon at the edge. She begins the morning, in fact, downing a couple of needed pills. Like Premier Chou she is in sufferance, and, although excited by the whole trip, she is also exhausted and, we feel, not at all comfortable. The most American of this opera's figures, she flaunts a bright red coat. Flawlessly played by Janis Kelly, Pat comes off as somewhat frail and slightly terrified being as she is rushed through a glass factory (where the workers award her a green elephant) and classrooms in which the students have clearly been told what to say and how to behave, before stopping by the Gate of Longevity and Goodwill, where she sings her touching and slightly pathetic paean to the world she loves:

                                         This is prophetic! I foresee
                                         A time will come when luxury
                                         Dissolves into the atmosphere
                                         Like a perfume, and everywhere
                                         The simple virtues root and branch
                                         And leaf and flower. And on that bench
                                         There we’ll relax and taste the fruit
                                         Of all our actions. Why regret
                                         Life which is so much like a dream?

Yet the homespun images she spins out of her sense of momentary joy—lit-up farm porches, families sitting around the dinner table, church steeples, etc.—are right out of Norman Rockwell paintings and is just as absurd of a vision as are her husband's darker mumblings.

      That evening's presentation of The Red Detachment of Women ballet, written by Chiang Ch'ing, Mao's wife—as she so shrilly reminds us later—is experienced by the now overwhelmed Nixons less as an objective performance—in reality the evening ended with enthusiastic praise by the President and First Lady—as from a psychological, inner viewpoint. It is clear that Nixon, as he suggests several times in the opera, admired Kissinger's mind, but he also mocked his ways and apparently disliked the man personally. Accordingly the Nixons both conjure up the evil landowner in their tired travelers' minds, to be, or, least, to look like Kissinger.* Like many an innocent theater-goer, the Nixons become so involved in the story of a poor girl who is saved and then destroyed by refusing to obey Communist doctrine that they confuse drama with reality, breaking into the action of the ballet itself to save and protect the young dancer.

     Mark Morris, using some aspects of the original choreography, nicely stages his orderly squadrons of young military dancers against the chaos of events. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the opera, and I am still not sure whether or not it truly succeeds, but it is crucial to our witnessing the truly mad person behind Chiang Ch'ing (Kathleen Kim)—who in real life may have been responsible for hundreds of deaths and had, herself, erratic nerves and severe hypochondiasis—as she proclaims in the noted aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung," angrily declaring that all be determined by "the book." After Mao's death, we should recall, Chiang Ch'ing committed suicide.

     After witnessing these six individuals'—Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Chiang Ch'ing—mental dramas, we can only breathlessly watch as they slip into sleep. Kissinger shacks up with one of Mao's translators before disappearing into the bathroom. The Nixons share their disappointments, the President for being misinterpreted by the newspapers, Pat silently suffering, with tearful eyes, from her husband's inattention and having herself to attend yet again to what may be his ritual recounting of an attack he endured in World War II. Mao also finds relief in the hands of one of his translators before threatening his wife for having made political mistakes, until he falls with her into a lustful embrace upon their bed. Chou En-lai, clearly already in pain from the bladder cancer which would kill him 4 years later, awakens early to return to his never-ending work, drawing a close to all the madness with the most profound question of the opera: "Was there any point to any of it?" The "it" may refer, obviously, to the Nixons' visit, but it also suggests another possibility of meaning: "Was there any point to all their madness, to their desperate struggles to hold onto any power they might have over others?" All ended their lives in disgrace and shame, except for Pat; but even she almost disappeared from the public eye after the death of her husband, suffering a serious stroke the same year that Chou En-lai died.

     In some respects, I now wonder, despite its occasional comic elements and always lush sonority of sound, if this isn't one of the darkest of operas. But then, aren't the young and the old—represented by the US and China—usually at the heart of the tragic, Romeo and Lear?

Los Angeles, February 19, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treasures (March 2011).  


Coincidentally, in my 1990 "opera for spoken voices," The Walls Come True (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995), I included Dr. Kissinger in my "Twelve Tyrants Between Acts: Mundane Moments and Insane Histories," based on the paranoia and ridiculous accusations he expressed in his Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little Brown, 1982) when, in 1973, he was in Hanoi attempting to negotiate the Paris Accords.            


Douglas Messerli | "A Body Transfixed by the Noonday Sun" (on Peter Sellars' and John Adams' The Gospel According to the other Mary)

a body transfixed by the noonday sun
by Douglas Messerli

Peter Sellars (libretto, based on Old and New Testament Sources and texts by Dorothy Day, Louis Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordon, Hildegard von Binger, and Rubén Dario), John Adams (composer) The Gospel According to the Other Mary, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel / the performance I saw was on Saturday, June 2, 2012

 The new opera-oratorio by John Adams and his often-time collaborator Peter Sellars, if nothing else—and there is a great deal more to be said for this work—is a serious and mature contribution to orchestral and vocal music of the 21st Century. Focusing this work on a woman, Mary Magdalene, the "other" Mary (Jesus' mother and Mary the mother of James being two further Biblical Marys), in legend from the town of Magdala, but in this version is described as being, along with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus, from Bethany.

      The gospels mention her very few times, primarily in Luke and Mark; but her importance is clear, particularly through the apocryphal texts which refer to her several times. She is one of the strongest and most important women who was close to Jesus, remaining with him beneaath the cross until his death and accompanying his body to the sepulchre wherein he was buried. Most importantly, however, are the biblical texts that describe Mary Magdalene as the one who discovered that Christ had risen, reporting the  news to his doubting disciples. In connection with this role, particularly from the 10th century on, she is referred to as the "apostle to the apostles."

      Adams' and Sellars' piece recounts some of this biblical history, particularly Mary Magdalene's suffering at the feet of Jesus during the Crucifixion and her later discovery of the missing body, Jesus, who she mistakenly took to be a gardener, calling her by name, the event which ends the work. But through the libretto's collage of texts, this piece takes the Mary Magdalene our of biblical context and drops her into numerous Twentieth century contexts, presenting the two sisters first as women who have been arrested and jailed, later as women who run a "House of Hospitality" for homeless girls, and in the Second Act as women picketing along with civil rights activist and union leader César Chávez—a far different César from Caesar Augustus whose call for a census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for their child's birth.. This shuffling back and forth in time is an attempt, obviously, by the librettist and composer to link the immediate lessons of Jesus with those who carry his message forth into our own time. And in several ways their condensation of time successfully presents these two important women in Jesus' life in a role in which they embody Christ's teaching, while at the same time emphasizing—particularly in Martha's complaint of being forced to serve alone while her sister lies at the master's feet—the special role Mary Magdalene played in Jesus' life.

      Adams' music, particularly in the first act, as he follows these women's lives and the resurrection of their brother Lazarus, is lush and beautiful, his constantly shifting rhythms reflecting the pushes and pulls of the demands these special followers put upon Jesus. The composer's brilliant concept of carrying much of the narrative through the voices of three countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley) allows the story to move forward, while the central figures, Mary Magdalene (Kelly O'Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford), and the strong-voiced Russell Thomas as Lazarus sing of their own psychological experiences and their personal relationships with Jesus.   

      From the beginning we come to understand Mary Magdalene as a woman of special intensity, having evidently attempted suicide and isolated herself from others after her brother's death—the injuries to her arm healed by the messiah—while later showering her love upon Jesus with the herbs and ointments with which she has bathed her hair and with which washes Jesus' feet. Far from the hard-working and more sensible Martha, Mary is clearly a woman of passion, as the women's chorus put it (in Spanish) "a body transfixed by the noonday sun," which becomes a metaphor of her love for and her personal relationship with Jesus. This Mary—without specifically being portrayed as a former prostitute—is very much an embodiment of Jesus' teachings about love.  

There are numerous powerful moments in the First Act, including the prophet Isaiah-inspired "Howl ye," sung by Lazarus and the Chorus, the passage in Spanish I just referred to ("En un diea de amor yo bajé hasta la tierra"), the intense Resurrection of Lazarus ("Drop down, ye heavens, from above"), again sung by the Chorus, Lazarus' own impassioned outburst ("For the Grave cannot praise thee,"), Mary's "I wash your ankles" and the Chorus's response ("Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita"), and the absolutely splendiferous Last Supper, sung by Lazarus ("Tell me: how is this night / Different from all other nights?"), a  piece, ending the First Act, which I almost hoped might never cease.

     Unfortunately, not all of the passages that Sellars chose for his collage are as excitingly poetical as those I mention, and, particularly in the Second Act, when the biblical narrative begins to dominate, so too does the music turn a bit turgid, occasionally reminding one of the numerous Hollywood film epics of Jesus' life and crucifixion. Here the Countertenors and their narrative-telling dominate, while the personal viewpoints of the work's three major figures is diminished by the swelling of larger events, including Jesus' own arrest and Mary's and Martha's agitated protests. Accordingly, the action is described in a kind of secondhand manner that effects not only the libretto but the music as well. Only with the Crucifixion, particularly in Scene 4, with Mary's recounting of the falling rain on Jesus' body, and Lazarus' interpretations of the dying Christ's words: "I want no shelter, deny / the whole configuration" does the work again reach the heights of the First Act. And both librettist and composter redeem this act with the stunning introduction of a resurrection of nature itself: "It is spring. The tiny frogs pull / their strange bodies out / of the suckholes," sung by both the Chorus and Mary. The final graveside encounter between Mary and the gardener who calls her name, is so marvelously understated that the audience with whom I saw The Gospel According to the Other Mary was not sure to applaud as Dudamel brought the orchestra to a quiet cessation.

      What I have said above, however, cannot to do justice to instrumental variations of this piece which uses numerous percussion instruments not usually to be found in modern-day orchestras, along with the employment throughout of the cimbalom, creating the sound of an instrument contemporaneous with the Biblical events. Some of the narrative difficulties, moreover, may be solved

when the production is transformed from a piece of the orchestra hall into a blend of opera and oratorio performance, which is planned for the future. I cannot wait to rediscover this work in its new form, but feel blessed to have experienced it in this early manifestation.

Los Angeles, June 3, 2012