Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Brave New World

Giving birth to an opera has been made easier in recent years thanks, in large part, to the process of workshopping. Next week, when San Francisco's Concert Opera Association presents two performances of John Adams' Nixon in China, the Bay area composer will have an invaluable chance to examine how his new opera sounds to a live audience before putting the final finishing touches on the score.

Like Anthony Davis' "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X," John Adams' new work could help propel the operatic art form into the 21st century. For better or worse, the opera's cast of characters includes such heavyweights as Richard Nixon (the only American President to have had an opera written about him), Henry Kissinger and Mao-Tse-Tung.

Will Nixon in China become the great American opera that everyone has been waiting for? There are no guarantees. But, after receiving its fully-staged world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, Nixon in China will be presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium. "To have a world premiere is nice. But it's the second, third and fourth productions of a work which are important," stresses Patrick Smith, Executive Director of the National Endowment's Opera/Musical Theatre Program.


The opera's subject matter -- combined with the fact that the Music Critics Association will be convening in Houston for the world premiere -- assures its creators that Nixon in China will make the news. A project engineered by the Houston Grand Opera's General Director, David Gockley, this new work is being partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and Opera America's "Opera Into the Eighties And Beyond" program. Like many other new American operas, Nixon in China is receiving NEA funding in three stages: creation, development and cost of production.

Most of the people I've talked to who are associated with this project feel that, if all goes well, Nixon in China could be a staggering achievement. Its creators certainly boast impressive track records. The composer, John Adams, is considered by many to be one of the most talented musicians in the minimalist movement. And Peter Sellars (the opera's director who has been hailed far and wide as a 20th century dramatic wunderkind) recently received the MacArthur Foundation or "genius" award.

One of the people involved with the project from its start has been John DeMain, who will conduct Concert Opera Association's reading of Nixon in China as well as the San Francisco Opera's production of Porgy and Bess. A man with equal strengths in the Broadway and operatic idioms (he has conducted works by Strauss, Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Joplin, Kern, Bernstein, Sondheim and Philip Glass for the Houston Grand Opera) DeMain has worked such formidable performing artists as Carol Channing, Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo, Eva Marton, Leontyne Price and Ethel Merman. In 1978 he received both the Grammy award and France's Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.


When I spoke with Maestro DeMain in his dressing room at Houston's Jones Hall (following the opening night performance of Salome on March 27) he confided that Adams' score is one of the most difficult pieces of music he has ever had to learn. While skeptics question the need to create new works when the achievements of Puccini, Wagner, Verdi and Mozart can hardly be topped, the hard truth is that, in order for opera to become a popular art form in America it must embrace new sounds and move into the future.

"How else are we going to get a body of work which is comprised of so-called 'American opera'?" asks the National Endowment's Patrick Smith. "We can't legislate it by telling poor Sam Barber to write Antony and Cleopatra. That approach obviously didn't work. Furthermore, there is a general societal illiteracy developing in America. Although it may be fashionable to think that the problem affects only the lower or street classes, that's not the case at all -- it's happening right now at the middle class level."

"Because we're trapped in a sensation-mongering situation, the media goes wild when thousands of people attend Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach or some other phenomenon. Editors put such events on the cover of Time magazine for one week and then new American operas go right back out of the public's consciousness. The bitter truth is that many people in the media don't want to know about opera because they're editing for the masses and, therefore, aiming at the lowest common denominator."

When one examines performance art pieces like George Coates' Rare Area or Laurie Anderson's O Superman, it becomes obvious that the future of opera will be strongly influenced by a combination of traditional theatrical forces and music video. "All of us are children of the LP disc and, to be able to buy complete operas has given us a chance to know the music that no one could have had thirty years ago," explains Columbia Artists' management consultant, Matthew Epstein. "To be able to turn on one's television set and watch a complete performance of Tosca or La Gioconda is something that simply could not have been imagined!"

"Each nation experiences a century in which there is a sudden, incredible explosion of creativity -- a period which usually coincides with tremendous decadence in society. French opera reached its greatest heights during the decadence of French romanticism. Russian opera was at its greatest during the decadence of the Czar's regime. Italian opera had its greatest moments during the Risorgimento -- just before the Italian state entered its Fascist period and, at this very moment, the United States is just ripe for opera to become a contemporary art form," insists Epstein.

Whether or not his predictions come true, I have a sneaky suspicion that Tricky Dickie will prove to be a curious choice as the man who is best equipped to lead American opera into the 21st century.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 21, 1987.

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