Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Nixon in China, or Opera is Grand

I remember my first opera at the Met. I went to see La Traviata with Editha Gruberova and she was terrible. She was also, according to Wikipedia, 42 and not the singer she had been when my parents had seen her over a decade earlier in Vienna. "Opera," said my mother, "can be better than this." And now it is.

The change in part came from a focus on singers--the new generation is superb and you rarely hear the wobbly vibratos and pitchy screeching of years past. The Met is now one of *the* places to see new, jaw-dropping, imaginative, and ambitious theater. Some of the re-stagings of classics, to my mind, are successful and others less so. All the same, I usually leave the Met feeling elevated because someone has tried to envision a grand world for me to enter.

I remember an interview with Bryan Singer, who wrote and directed the first two wonderful X-Men movies. To paraphrase, he said something like: the only way to translate the X-Men story to screen and to respect the fans, was to treat the material with sincerity. I think that's as true of a comic book hero as it is an opera. The Met respects its fans and treats its operas with sincerity. I love the results.

Much has been made of the fact that Nixon in China took 27 years to reach the Met. I was nervous about going last night--I always worry that "high art" of the modern variety is going to be above me. You can read the reviews in the press if you want the usual assessment of the music and the singing. But this afternoon, I'm still thinking about the second act, and what it means to the world of opera. In this portion of the opera, Pat and Dick are treated to a show staged by Madame Mao, which is actually a ballet choreographed by the witty Mark Morris. A young peasant girl is "whipped" on the stage. Pat is upset and goes to comfort the young girl. A young man forgets his gun (hello Chekhov) on stage, and Dick keeps trying to return the prop. From here, reality disintegrates and Pat and Dick get caught up in the action--the mass whippings, the thought control, the mind fuckery of the Cultural Revolution--and you in the audience lose track of what is real and what is not. Which, if you think about it, is probably the way that any kind of authoritarian mind control must feel. Are your emotions authentic? Are you allowed to have any? What constitutes reality when all activities are dictated to such a minute level?

It's an incredible feat of theater and art, this second act. I sat there feeling horrified and amused all at once; it's rare for a piece of art to reach and succeed for several emotions at the same time, but that's what great art can and should do. And I sat there thinking that in 1987, when Nixon in China was first produced, the creators must in some part have been thinking of trying to demonstrate what opera can be. There is so much ambition in this work. You can really feel how it paved the way for our concept of what opera is--both past and present.

There are other aspects of this production that I haven't about read anywhere--the subject of race, for example. Over the years, I've noticed less and less race based casting at the Met. The Don Carlo I saw this winter was Asian. Albrecht was black. Last night, there were "black Chinese workers" and "white Chinese workers." The audience does not seem to care--nor should it. The vision for opera now is so vast and so grand that race seems to matter less and less. The statement that the operas are all making now are not so much about Duke so and so in his 18th century palace, or a very 19th century courtesan, but about very richly imagined themes. Opera of course lends itself to "big feelings"--we use the word operatic for a reason. But it's almost as though by focusing on the emotions in opera--the love, betrayal, the lust, the greed--even more than the particulars, opera has managed to almost reinvent itself and transcend its aristocratic upbringing. How else does something like Nixon in China emerge?

Over at Tonya's blog, the discussion surrounding race in dance has been fascinating to read.

An anonymous poster wrote the following:

For dance to really move forward directors need to stop looking to “dance” as inspiration and start looking at the world around them for influences. Once that is done the whole race discussion would be obsolete because everyones differences will be embraced which ultimately will tie us all together (and box office sales).

Somewhere along the way, I feel like the Met and the opera world stopped looking myopically at opera for inspiration, and at the world instead. Though I have loved the Zeffirelli sets and the Otto Schenk production of the Ring Cycle, I'm impressed by the willingness of Peter Gelb to have a vaster vision than to try to stick his audience in 19th century Europe night after night. The essential integrity of opera has remained, but by opening up the scope, the operas have become more generous and more human. It troubles me that ballet doesn't seem to have gone through this same change yet.

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