Operating Outside The Comfort Zone: Nixon in China

Posted by Vancouver Opera On 11:15 AM

Photo by Tim Matheson

In some ways Nixon is an opera about the conventions of opera. This, in turn, creates layers of post-modern irony, making it a work of and for our age. Consider the two sopranos: the odious Madam Mao (sung in this production by Tracy Dahl) is a queen of the high Cs; the utterly unflamboyant Pat Nixon (Sally Dibblee) is a down-home girl happy to talk about her days on the farm. Henry Kissinger (Thomas Hammons) manages to embody both the sinister and the comic dimensions that have long been the operatic turf of basses. (Hint: pay particular attention to the "play within a play" in the second act). The philosopher commentator Chou En-lai (Chen-ye Yuan) is a baritone, as is Richard Nixon (Robert Orth). In opera land baritones are usually too clear-headed to die for love or fight the dragon: that's what tenors are for. Heldentenor Alan Woodrow sings the role of Chairman Mao.


Photos by Tim Matheson

Each of the three acts contains innovative operatic set pieces. The first grand effect is the landing of a transcontinental jet - a great opportunity for stagecraft, while the real spectacle is churning away down in the orchestra pit. The second act includes a Red Chinese "ballet" scene (lots of resonances there!) which takes on a surreal dimension. And the Maos dance a retro fox-trot in the third act, triggered by Madame Mao's quaint invitation to her spouse: "We'll teach these motherf---ers how to dance!" All very post-modern.


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