Friday, February 4, 2011

Nixon and Books at the Opera

An Interesting Twist on History

Over the past month, newspapers, magazines, and radio stations promoting the 1987 opera "Nixon in China" by John Adams have used a handful of curious phrases to describe the piece; usually either "ground breaking" or "path breaking." I'm not sure if either of these terms really work or make sense. I mean, don't get me wrong, this is one of the great operas out there, and it is one of my personal favorites. And I think that Adams is a marvelous composer. But it is in the way that many in the contemporary opera world see this opera that is somewhat puzzling--and thus use these expressions to speak to its seemingly novel employment in the operatic format. Someone this week on one of the NY stations--I think WQXR--addressed this idea of the opera being "ground breaking," in the sense that it ushered in a new host of opera-style pieces, which are being dubbed "docu-operas," or "documentary operas" and even "shock operas." (The commentator didn't seem to think that this term fit or was even necessary, and that "docu-opera" was just a neologism for our times.) Nonetheless, this supposed trend in "docu-operas" is meant to deal with contemporary characters within the framework of the idealized old art form of opera. Some of these new operas can be read about in a recent Financial Times article, and include subjects from Princess Diana and Jerry Springer to Tiger Woods. There's even an opera-style piece based on the transcripts of a testimony by former Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales--called "The Gonzales Cantata!"

So, the idea of the "docu-opera" in many ways seems like a misunderstanding of the historical opera, and specifically, the historical libretto. But it may still be proven accurate after some consideration. The thing that really does make a work like "Nixon in China" unique is that it is an artistic representation (with many liberties!) of an historical event, depicting heads of state and/or leaders of a nation, who were still alive when the opera was written and first performed. (Nixon was still alive when the opera was premiered).

Well, this past week, "Nixon in China" had its Metropolitan Opera premiere on Wednesday night at 8PM. I had the chance to attend, and walked around in the cold and rain before the event. I took photos of Lincoln Center, as well as the bookstore that is part of the Met--though, I did this from the outside to respect the "no photography inside the opera house" request. I wanted to show my kind readers some "bookish opera stuff," so I will offer you this simple photograph above, which is the back side (outside) of the bookshop.

There were some other interesting views to see, which I'm sharing here as well.

Adjacent to the Met was the NYPL for the Performing Arts (Dance, Theater, Music). I took this photo below, which you can see was illuminated in the early evening.

As the hour of the performance drew near, I skipped over puddles of ice water and stumbled up the steps into the opera house. I settled up on the highest rung of the opera ladder: the Family Circle, where the inexpensive ("nose bleed") tickets can be had. I had a fine view, right at the front, and enjoyed the performance with every moment of vocal and artistic and theatrical grandeur displayed: the airplane descending, the pounding minimalist chords, the performance of the magnificent actors, including the reprise of the Nixon role by James Maddalena, who is surely my favorite "Nixonian" in this part. My evening was balanced with a series of interesting events: first, I was hushed by someone behind me for "leaning forward," which I didn't actually do, because there was no room to move forward! But I apologized and the evening went forward. Another interesting event was that the fellow sitting to my left was a blue grass musician who plays in a kids band called the Okee Dokee Brothers. (Check them out, if you get a chance--they've got some really great music!) Joe M. (see the website) and I had some good conversations about "Nixon... ." I later discovered that the house was full of celebs and other such folks. In fact, one of Nixon's own daughters was there, and according to the NY Times review the next day, she was back stage getting her photo taken with her parents' song-bird doppelgangers! The last curiosity of the evening came, as I was leaving, after the opera. I waited for the place to clear out, because I didn't like being stuck in the crowd. So on my way down the stairs, there were just a few people around, and I nearly tripped over NY fashionista Isaac Mizrahi. The thing about New York is that everyone is here/there. So you're likely to run into or trip over, as was my case, pretty much anyone.

Returning to my real theme, "books," I offer you this parting souvenir: a playbill for the opera. It's a book of sorts. A little book. A "booklet." But it certainly conveys a great deal of information. I can't imagine the "booklet" playbill ever becoming digital. That would be just plain weird. I understand that the supertitles are digital, but there's only so much "ground breaking," "path breaking," "trailblazing" that I can take in one evening. So I'd rather give that credit to John Adams. And I'll still hold on to this "bookish" playbill.

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