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Friday, May 26, 2006

By the (Little Red) Book, pt. 1

I've just returned from my maiden voyage to the Chicago Opera Theatre where I first set foot in the Harris Theatre in millennium Park and lost my John Adams virginity a few months before I was born.


That's me-speak for "I went to see Nixon in China."

The Chicago Opera Theatre, according to its resident conductor, is the little sister company to the Lyric Opera. In general, they mount threeish (both this season and next, one production is actuallly two) production on a smaller scale than Lyric. They seem to draw talent that is about on par with Lyric (indeed, two of tonight's performers are people I've seen there, and they've got Samuel Ramey next season), and the productions they choose can be a bit more off the beaten path than the one finds at Lyric. All I know about the company, I learned from my friend M, from whom I bought the ticket for Nixon, and a brief perusal of their website today.

One strong positive for the COT I noted before I ever set foot in the actual theater is that they seem to be big on extracurricular activities for their productions. Their website recommends readings and recordings for each opera, and in the case of Nixon they sponsored and/or participated in a large number of related activities. There are still a few exhibits and such running that I'm now even more motivated to catch, but for the lazy, they offered a preshow lecture by the conductor, Alexander Platt.

I made it downtown in plenty of time to catch the lecture, but not quite in enough time to renew my driver's license, as I'd hoped to do. Woe is me, I was forced to wander around Marshall Field's for a bit. I had little idea what to expect of the theater building or of the crowd. The theater building itself doesn't exactly wow, particularly if one is used to the Lyric in all its deco glory. Of course, the building and the theater are multipurpose, rather than dedicated space, so the comparison isn't exactly fair. Still, the cement stairs and glossy industrial paint does bring to mind nightmares of high school gym classes.

The theater is modern and minimalist in the best way. There are large, exposed lighting grids from floor to ceiling on either side of the stage, as well as a rig above the proscenium. The screen for supertitles is small and unobtrusive. The walls and area above the proscenium (visible through the grids) are faced either with dull metal or concrete. (Metal, I suspect, given that the place does have some acoustic problems but not bad enough to be caused by concrete.)

The seats are new, understated, comfortable, and---thank you jeebus---adequately raked so you're not at eye level with the occipital bun of the guy in front of you for an entire season. However, you can have adequately raked seats, or you can have stairs that are easily and safely navigated. You can't have both. This bitter fact of life gave me my first taste of the nature of the crowd and I've gotta say, it caused a painful pinching behind my eyes as no fewer than 10 groups of people arriving together kept up nonstop whingeing conversations about the lack of railings and why did we have to sit in the center section when those aren't our seats and why aren't they using a mic for the lecture and what's a lecture and where will the lecturer be and why is the toaster laughing at me and biting me with my own teeth?

I understand their concerns, really. If the cumulative age of my group exceeded that of dynastic China, I would want to get all my bitching out as soon as possible. Ok, in fairness, they didn't seem prepared for the number of people who showed for the lecture and the staff were not particularly clear in communicating the game plan, but still. My concerns about the crowd and potential shadyness of the operation reached their peak when an unidentified woman who was wearing around her neck some kind of reptile knit from particularly assy acrylic yarn introduced the conductor, who appeared to be about 9 years old as he slouched against the row of seats behind him, looking sullen in his red polar fleece.

I'm delighted to say, though, that all concerns fell away when Platt began to talk. He was funny, charming, informed, interesting, and deeply passionate about American opera, Adams, and most especially about Nixon in China. This did not stop people from wasting the 2 minutes he had to answer questions on completely dumbass questions. (From memory: How long did it take the chorus to learn Tai Chi?; if you have to reload the synthesizer, does that mean that we're getting recorded music [this asked in withering tones worthy of the kind of people who show up to 20th-Century productions at Lyric for the express purpose of walking out in the first 2 minutes]?; does this have any similarities to "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" [one of Adams' tone poems]?)

Given the crowd-created drama before the lecture, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the woman working the concession was not fazed in the least by the fact that I took roughly an hour to dig five Sacajawea dollars out of the bottom of my Batz purse (the metra station was only taken 20s for some reason), and the usher seemed shocked that I had come to the right door on the right level to find my way to my seat. Both were further kind enough not to comment on the fact that I had managed to spill coffee all over my left boob. (I was wearing a new jacket for the first time, naturally.)

As I found my way into my very nice seat (orchestra level, left section, one seat off the aisle), I took in the space, the staff and the crowd. In general, the crowd was more dressed down than that at Lyric. There were also a more people my age and younger (most of them dressed extremely casually), but the bulk of the crowd comprised folks older and much more upscale than yours truly. All the same, the energy was quite different. People (at least those who weren't Grandpa Simpsonsing about not being able to get to their seats) were buzzing with excitement, the place was packed, and it seemed likely that most everyone was there for the long haul. I know it seems perverse, me being me, but I like to like things, so I was happy to feel that I was at home among my peeps in this regard.

Having been in the theater for the lecture, I was actually "spoiled" for some elements of the set as the causally dressed crew made their final preparations before and during the conductor's talk. I think that companies mounting Nixon probably sign a contract that the set will be overwhelmingly red. Having lived through a dreadful staged production of Apt Pupil in which they painted the entire lobby, floor and celing included, blood red and turned the ceiling fans into swastikas, the red upstage wall, proscenium, teasers, tormentors, (all of which were made up of square panels), and floor were making me a bit twitchy. Given that, it's probably all for the best that I had spoilery knowledge of the multiple cabinet televisions as the shiny thing to distract me.

The crew had also set out 20-odd figures in the style of the terra cotta warriors (they didn't have the distinctive coloring, and they were not identical to one another) used in burials during the early days of Imperial China. These were placed in several neat rows downstage, one of which wound up on the house side of the curtain when it was lowered. The curtain came up at about 7:15 and "A Chinese Woman" dressed in traditional peasant style took the stage and started doing tai chi just in front of the warriors. From then on, another member of the chorus would take the stage at irregular intervals and join her until there were 20ish people doing (more or less [sometimes painfully less]) synchronized tai chi. When the last member joined, someone already on stage picked up a warrior and moved it to the upstage wall until all the figures were in a single line facing upstage.

The choral tai chi continued until the houselights came down (at which time at least 20 people over the age of Methuselah were still trying to find their seats). The chorus were dressed in the iconic dull blue and red uniforms of the People's Liberation Army. (Actually, aren't those colors out of period for the 1970s, though?) Unfortunately, there was some degree of shabbiness and nonuniformity to the uniforms, although I'm not sure whether this was simply an unexpected side effect of my proximity to the stage, or if it reflects one of the economic realities of being the little sister opera company.

From the opening measures, I understood exactly why Alexander Platt had stressed the difficulty of conducting Adams in general and Nixon in particular, despite Adams' supposed "minimalism." Things start simply with repetitive aeolian modal scales on (I think) the strings, and he just keeps layering and layering, with each addition slightly offset from the rest. In the first choral number, "The three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention" (which reminds me of a Diana Wynne Jones story), the vocal line is inserted in short staccato bursts between layers as the members move (again, mostly) as one, facing three-quarters stage left, then turning three-quarters stage right, and finally assembling in two lines, one downstage of the other, against the upstage wall as Premier Chou En-lai enters along with Kissinger and the staircase bearing the Nixons rolls in from stage right.

As the first couple descends the stairs, the televisions (12 in all, suspended from two rows of lighting grid [painted red, of course], one upstage of the other) are flown in. The initial momen of contact between Nixon and Chou En-lai is done in slow motion, and again, I worried. (I'm sorry, the wounds from Oliver Stone's William Shakespeare's Julius Caeasar run deep.) But the slo-mo turned out to be brief, well done, and completely appropriate. Unsurprisingly, throughout the meet and greet, the televisions flicked through images of the historic arrival.

Throughout the arrival scene, the energy on stage builds and the music along with it. The players on stage, including the chorus, seem completely caught up in the moment, when suddenly the music changes dramatically, but not at all abruptly. It's back to rapidly ascending and descending scales, this time on the synthesizer (at least I assume there wasn't actually a piano in the pit). Even though this is technically a return to the opening measures, it almost sounds as though the orchestra is about to launch into a Jerry Lee Lewis song as filtered through the Velvet Underground. Musically, it was fantastic. Vocally, I'm afraid that Robert Orth (our Dick) was not exactly a showcase for Adams' much-vaunted love for amplification (which we don't DO at Lyric) as he launched into "News, news, news."

In reading the program, I thought it was odd that the original 1987 production basically tried to put a Nixon clone on stage. Although everyone involved stressed the more fantastical approach her, Orth talked about not really reaching Nixon as a character until his slicked back hair showed up. If they were worried about a Nixon clone, their fears were ill founded. Unfortunately, they failed to see the Ed Sullivan clone sneaking up behind them. (And this wasn't just me---at intermission, I heard more than one "really big shoooo for yooou tonight" gag going on.) The resemblance was bound to be shocking and a bit giggle worthy under the best of circumstances, and the fact that I could hardly hear Orth's singing didn't give me much else to focus on.

The initial meeting accomplished, the scene shifted to an interior and the introduction of The Chairman. This was another problematic attempt to visually recreate a historical figure that suffered from sadly partial commitment to the bit. There's no getting aroudn the fact that Mark Duffin is not Asian, not bald, and not rotund. Why they chose to only address the bald part of that equation, I'm not sure. He was a dead ringer for Mao's taller brother from behind (seriously, they got the heart-shaped 'do just right), but from the front he looked like he'd lost his pregnancy belly and/or the fat had bunched up under his bald cap. Duffin was also an unfortunately sore thumb in terms of his physical approach. He shuffled (sometimes), stooped (occasionally), and lowered and raised himself carefully (once in a while). But his voice was great and he seemed to bring out Orth's pipes, at least temporarily.

Also on the positive front, the staging and blocking for this meeting was complex and effective. Mao's three secretaries (females who came in small, medium, and large, with identical, stereotypical Asian bobs and glasses) wheeled on six red (of course) leather desk chairs with arms, setting them in a loose arc well downstage. Nixon, Mao, Chou En-lai, and Kissinger cycled through these, jockeying for position, angling them toward or away from the other players and/or the audience, and so on, at a dizzying pace. It reminded me of the odd (in a good way) musical-rocking-chairs staging of "Politics: The Art of the Possible" in the production of Evita that the ZK and I saw at the Chicago Theatre many moons ago.

At this point, I think I've seen five operas in English. Nixon is the first in which I've been forcibly struck by the poetry and intricate wordplay in the libretto. That was especially evident in Act I, scene ii, as the Chinese speak in riddles and metaphor, driving Nixon to frustration and, ultimately, brutally direct communication as Dick flips the Chairman the bird behind his back. I was exhausted by the end of this scene as I tried to follow not only extremely challenging lyrical content, but even more relentless musical lines. This was probably my least favorite scene, but it's also the scene I can see developing into a demanding favorite.

As if sensing the need for a breather, both Adams and Goodman (the librettist) take it easier on the performers and the audience in the third scene of the first Act. Here, Pat is reintroduced as she and the President attend a banquet. One row of televisions is unchained from the grid by the chorus and assembled into a set of steps leading up to the two tallest, which form a dais. Downstage of this, more chorus members have rolled on four curved tables. These were orginally arranged in a loose circle forming the boundary of the dance floor on which Pat and Dick share a sweetly intimate fox trot. This gives way to something more up-tempo as the main players and the chorus make dinner party conversation about the coming spring. The red, wheeled chairs reappear and there's some truly elegant choreography as Pat, Nixon, Chou En-lai, and the Chairman swivel in counterpoint to the tables, which are being rotated by the chorus, evoking the speed and dexterity with which they all manage to circulate around one another.

Eventually, Chou mounts the dais (the televisions each now show a static image of either the Chinese or American flag) and gives a toast to fraternity. The words are lovely and Adams notches down the musical complexity backing his speech, giving the libretto the spotlight. Probably related to the ear-dribbling of yesterday's trip to the Museum of Contemporary art, I had been feeling fairly Cletus-the-Slack-Jawed-Yokel up to this point, but some actual thoughts started to percolate through during this comparatively restful section. As Chou En-lai reflected on the ideas that gave birth to the Revolution and the China they would leave to their children, there was a strong sense that the middle had been taken out of all their lives. If one were looking for any one of these people in the moment---in their own present---there'd be no there there. In Chou's case, this was a beautiful prelude to his self-doubt in the third act, which makes up the closing lines of the opera.

I know that's only Act I, but I'm exhausted at the moment, and I need to bathe and hope to catch a nap before I get on a flight at the asscrack of dawn.

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