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Tai Chi Diplomacy

Portland, Keller Auditorium
03/25/2006 -  March 30 and April 1 2006
John Adams : Nixon in China
Robert Orth (Richard Nixon)
Nancy Allen Lundy (Pat Nixon)
Tracy Dahl (Chiang Ch’ing, Madame Mao)
Keith Phares (Chaou En-lai)
Mark Duffin (Mao Tse-tung)
The Portland Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Barbara Day Turner (conductor)

As the audience filled Keller Auditorium for Portland Opera’s Nixon in China it saw choir members quietly performing Tai Chi on stage before the conductor entered to formally begin proceedings. The opera ended with Tai Chi too, this time performed by a single character, and those who could appreciate the tone and significance of this soft martial art had a valuable asset for appreciating the opera.

As a contemporary opera with 20th century tonality and non-fiction subject matter, Nixon in China is not lyrical or melodic in the sense of what one usually hears at the opera, and the narrative is not as structurally simple or easily comprehensible as its 19th counterparts. There are a few melodic fragments audience members might hum on the way home, but not many.

But this opera is lyrical in the sense of flow found in Tai Chi and minimalism, and the narrative was comprehensible in Tai Chi terms as a “moving meditation” about responsiveness to outside forces and how those forces affects one’s character. In addition to Tai Chi principles of moving meditation and appropriate responsiveness, there is the principle of mastering and applying defensive and neutralizing techniques before resorting to aggression—the perfect metaphor for the diplomatic mission explored in the libretto.

When the orchestra began to play in perfect synch to the Tai Chi onstage, the combination heightened the effect of both the physical and musical elements of the overture. Both elements set the tone for the orchestral foundation of the music: flowing, meditative, repetitive yet responsive. The narrative is similarly flowing and meditative, and the overall effect was to ask the audience for a similarly reflective responsiveness—asking for perception rather than judgment.

The opening choral music is some of the most tonal and accessible in the opera, and the opening scene of Richard Nixon arriving in China is a fairly natural way to begin the narrative. Robert Orth managed to imitate Nixon’s mannerisms without mocking them, and he sang with beautiful clarity and ease. His opening aria about living in a media-saturated society, gave us insight into his character and a reminder that the politicians in the opera might be less than revelatory in their public interaction. Nixon’s personal thoughts were presented ironically in a public scene and we were introduced to one of the most dynamic elements of the opera: the contrast between thoughts presented as inner monologues, closed meetings, and public interactions. We were also effectively introduced to Chou En-lai’s complex character, played with beautiful vocal quality and grace by Keith Phares.

Scene two was a little more difficult to appreciate. It is a meeting with Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, Chou En-lai, and Mao’s three secretaries. Nixon and Mao often disagree and occasionally agree on trite maxims that made semi-impressive one-liners but remained a bit too abstract to mean a great deal. A debate between the two countries’ leaders about the significance of history and duty to future generations is a poignant exception given the historical nature of the opera.

The first act ended strongly with a banquet scene in which John Adams explores intriguingly varied music and emotion. The orchestral accompaniment is still minimalist in this scene, but Adams adds strong elements of jazz—beatnik and big band—through timbre and harmony that results in a surprisingly effective hybrid of the two genres. Switching from this hybrid back to the starker minimalism of composers, like Philip Glass, gave repeated actions on stage very different emotional impact. Characters spinning in chairs around the table seemed jovial and reminiscent of the golden age of musical theater when the jazzy minimalist music played. When the music became starker, the same spinning took on a troubled, almost chaotic air.

The second act was probably the most poignant. In two succinct acts we got a satisfyingly intimate insight into Pat Nixon’s and Madame Mao’s characters, some impressively powerful coloratura sung by Tracy Dahl in the latter role, and an intriguing play-within-a-play with gorgeous modern dance. Nancy Allen Lundy played a respectfully naïve Pat Nixon who charmed the audience with her personal reflections about avoiding trivialities and memories of growing up without luxury but also worried us that she can’t be called out of herself to the face of the Other as she is taken sight-seeing. Madame Mao’s character is painted boldly as one who is accustomed to power and unwilling to relinquish it. The play-within-a-play results in an intriguing power struggle between the Nixons and Madame Mao which reiterates the limitations to political negotiations that were indicated in the second scene of the first act.

The third act is an abstract exploration of characters in alternately shared and separate stream of consciousness. This act, as unexpected and innovative as it is, is subtly so and a bit trying at the end of such a long production. It’s only twenty minutes long, but given the lack of narrative drive and the total running time of three and a half hours, it feels a lot longer. But one who endures to the end will hopefully have grown from the experience of applying Tai Chi diplomacy to the demanding and rewarding experience in what may be musically foreign territory that inspires reflection about our own perceptions and responsiveness to outside forces.

Rebecca Packard



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