Monday, December 3, 2007

Scotch On The Rocks

Back in 1959, when he was campaigning for the Presidency, Senator John F. Kennedy insisted that, "after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle (or in politics) but for our contribution to the human spirit. The new frontier for which I campaign in public life can also be a new frontier for American art. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft."

Thanks to the generosity of British Airways, I was recently able to witness a prime example of American art acting as an ambassador for the United States. A ten-day business trip took me to the capital of Scotland (British Airways runs an hourly 757 shuttle service from London's Heathrow Airport) where the 1988 Edinburgh Festival was in its final week of performances. My main purpose in traveling overseas was to write about the Houston Grand Opera's production of John Adams' controversial first opera, Nixon in China (and how it fared at the Edinburgh Festival) for Opera Monthly magazine. However, while in the midst of a multi-disciplined international arts festival, I got a solid handle on how the arts not only exert a strong commercial appeal but perform an important ambassadorial function for the nations they represent.

Between the main attractions to the Edinburgh Festival and a wealth of fringe activities, nearly 4,000 arts events were staged in a city of 500,000 during the three weeks of the 1988 Festival. Many attractions, imported from other nations, brought unique cultural flavors, both good and bad, to the Scottish capital. Among the productions I missed (but very much wanted to see) were the Folkopera of Stockholm's Turandot, Japan's Ninagawa Theatre performing Shakespeare's The Tempest, some operatic puppet shows from Sicily, and Tokyo's highly-acclaimed Matsuyama Ballet performing full-length works like Giselle and Mandala. Even without attending these performances, I had no trouble keeping myself busy.


Although military marching bands are not exactly my cup of tea, while in Scotland I paid the obligatory visit to Edinburgh's Military Tattoo (where I watched numerous regiments parade back and forth in kilts in front of Edinburgh's historic castle while little kids on motorcycles and bigger boys in army tanks careened around the Castle Esplanade in a circus-like frenzy). Afternoons were spent strolling along the Royal Mile, browsing through Edinburgh's art museums and examining a fascinating exhibit of historical death masks.

Between shopping excursions along Princes Street (Edinburgh's answer to Fifth Avenue) I attended a matinee of the Royal Exchange Theatre Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, visited the Palace of Holyrood (where Mary, Queen of Scots, once lived) and toured the rest of Scotland's capital, an incredibly beautiful city which lies close by the mouth of the Firth of Forth. Evenings included a concert version of Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark conducted by John Mauceri, a performance of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (staged in St. Giles' cathedral) and a rock concert by a Japanese ensemble named Ryudogomi.

That rock concert proved to be quite an interesting event. Most of the musicians in Ryudogomi are classically trained and have written music for film scores and Japanese television shows (the band's nine members perform on tenor and alto sax, guitar, flute, bass, drums and keyboards in addition to the giant Japanese Odaiko drum and electric violin). Several have toured the United States with various jazz and rock bands. Rather than a heavy metal sound, Ryudogomi produces a form of pop music which resembles a cross between traditional rock and the swing sounds of the older big bands and jazz ensembles. It's a very different sound, which can be quite exciting. However, I couldn't help chuckling when the group's lead singer, Ryudo Uzaki, grabbed the microphone and in fractured English announced that "We are very happy to be in Edginborough. But we are very, very nervous. So we want you to sit back, re-rax and crap your hands!"

As I say, this Japanese rock group is a specialty act.


Of all the new operas I've attended, Nixon in China is so curiously American in flavor that I wondered how well it would play on foreign shores. John Adams' opera involves contemporary political figures whose images have been emblazoned on the public's mind through television; it is also the first opera ever to be written about a living American president. At its Amsterdam premiere in June, Nixon in China received extremely favorable reviews from the European press (the Netherlands Opera was one of the five original co-producers). Therefore, I was fascinated to see how the opera would fare in the United Kingdom.

Although cramming the production into the tiny stagehouse of Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre presented quite a challenge for HGO's technical crew, the opening and closing night performances of Nixon in China in Edinburgh had a noticeably different feel from the opera's world premiere in Texas. The Scots had no problems with Madame Mao's clearly articulated "We'll teach these motherfuckers how to dance," (a line which was deleted from the Houston premiere because the opera was being videotaped for delayed broadcast over the PBS network).
Because a great deal of Nixon in China was played downstage in Edinburgh, the production took on a much more intimate feeling in Scotland. Due to the curious dimensions of the theatre, director Peter Sellars was forced to move certain moments onto a stage apron (which was actually part of the orchestra lift), thus making parts of Adams' opera feel like a cross between agitprop theatre and a play by Bertolt Brecht. And, since Nixon in China is always performed with amplification (its creators have insisted on using microphones instead of Supertitles to enhance audience comprehension) on opening night in Edinburgh there were frequent problems with static from the sound system.

Nevertheless, the Scottish audience (which is usually quite staid) emitted several bravos as part of what was considered by locals to be a generous and warm reception. Conducting his opera for the first time in a theatre, composer John Adams coerced a much more violent, propulsive sound from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra than what I remembered from the opera's world premiere. In Edinburgh, one could clearly hear the donkey-like braying which accompanies some of Nixon's more fatuous statements and there was a greater sense of orchestral coloring throughout much of the performance.

With the exception of the lead dancer in Mark Morris's choreographed version of The Red Detachment of Women, the Nixon in China principals were the same as in previous performances. Thomas Hammons' grotesquely comedic portrayal of Henry Kissinger and Trudy Ellen Craney's obsessively narcissistic Madame Mao offered strong theatrical cameos while John Duykers' Mao-Tse-Tung and Sanford Sylvan's Chou-en-Lai continued to mature in their poetic and vocal strength. With his tongue constantly darting in and out of his mouth like that of a paranoid lizard, baritone James Maddalena's portrayal of Richard Nixon seems to have gained greater focus and dramatic impact. Soprano Carolann Page's impersonation of Pat Nixon continues to elicit sympathy from audiences.

My overall reaction to the Edinburgh experience was that these performances of Nixon in China offered a strong validation for John Adams' work as a composer, for the practice of co-commissioning and co-producing new operas, and for the lofty artistic standards to which Houston Grand Opera so nobly aspires and, even more amazingly, achieves. The only problem is that I still don't have particularly warm feelings for Richard Nixon.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 13, 1988.

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