The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Madison maestro John DeMain goes to Vancouver for Olympic opera and brings “Nixon in China” to Canada

February 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

You won’t see him competing in any sporting event involving snow or ice.

But Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot)  is one of Madison’s big contenders in the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics.

That’s because DeMain – who leaves Madison on Sunday and will return five weeks later on March 21 — will be conducting the Canadian premiere of American composer John Adams’ famous 1987 opera “Nixon in China” at the Vancouver Opera.

The opera is based on Chinese news accounts – the Western press was banned by China from covering it — of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing and his encounters with Chairman Mao (below right)  and Premier Chou en-Lai (Zhou En-lai).

Although the performances are scheduled for March 13, 16, 18 and 20 (in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre) after the games end, the opera is an official part of Vancouver’s celebration of the Olympics – the Arts Olympics, if you will.

The production (see the striking poster below) also helps mark the Golden Anniversary season of the Vancouver Opera.

Here is a link to the Vancouver Opera for details:

DeMain is the right person for the job. He also gave the world premiere of the Adams opera when he directed the Houston Grand Opera, before coming to Madison 16 years ago. He also conducted it for the PBS TV broadcast “Live From Lincoln Center,” with Walter Cronkite as the narrator, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington,. D.C., where people who went on the original China trip were in the audience.

(A curious aside: Milwaukee Symphony conductor Edo de Waart, who now lives in the Madison suburb of Middleton, was with the San Francisco Symphony when Adams was the resident composer there and was working on the opera. So he and DeMain agreed that DeMain, who commissioned the opera for Houston, would conduct certain performances and de Waart would do others and the recording.)

I haven’t heard seen or heard a live performance of the whole opera, but I love the aria that Nixon sings getting off the plane in Beijing, “News Has a Kind of Mystery” and I love — and have heard — “The Chairman Dances.” (Mao apparently really did enjoy Western-style ballroom dancing, in this case a fox trot, and was a prized dancing partner.)

Just before leaving Madison for Vancouver, DeMain spoke to The Ear about the upcoming production of the opera:

The Ear: What is the place of “Nixon in China” in the modern or contemporary opera repertoire?

DeMain: I think it has secured its place as a contemporary masterpiece, so it is very exciting to revisit it again after all these years.

It has not been put on the shelf, destined for oblivion. It has been regularly performed. It lay dormant for 10 or 15 years, and then suddenly there was a whole rash of new productions. This is a new production, and they’re making a big deal out of it.

John Adams (right)  uses as much bigger palette than Philip Glass. I think of Glass as the Papa Haydn of Minimalism, who inspired it and got it going. But then right away you get John Adams, who is the Beethoven of Minimalism, the master. Adams has a really distinct voice you hear right form the beginning.

Are there lessons for today and the new China?

For me, this opera takes on even more significance now that we know more about China. This is about the real turning point in US-China relations. Nixon is saying I was wrong about China and our awareness of it. Nixon was very well read and prepared. But Mao was a also a big follower of Western politics.

This is a turning point in the history of opera. The idea that the president could be a subject of an opera is like other composers using big figures like kings and priests in the past. Plus,it;s modern because the media coverage served as a principal inspiration for writing the opera.

How difficult is the opera?

It is a big piece and a very complicated work. It has a big cast, a ballet and a chorus.

I’m older now and it will be interesting to see how my approach has changed.

These Minimalist scores are not so new any more. “Nixon in China” has 1,850 meters changes – I counted them up once – so there’s a tremendous amount of counting.

Plus you have to mike the cast because they can’t sing over the orchestra. There are crossover allusions to jazz and rock music. It is powerfully rhythmical and draws a lot on ideas from before and current ones.

It goes wildly fast and it’s very interesting the way the music works. You listen without a score and you don’t perceive the difficulty of the score and all the syncopations. It sounds so simple. It’s very interesting and very hard, but it’s all do-able.

I’ll be rehearsing day and night. Usually we have three 3-hour sessions or rehearsals each day. That’s nine hours of conducting each day. Add in meetings and dinners and you have a lot of hard work — easily 12-hour days from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It takes a lot of concentration, but it’s fun.

Do you have favorite moments?

I think Nixon’s aria at the beginning of Act II is prophetic. And Chou en-Lai’s piece in the Great Hall is very beautiful. There are a lot of beautiful, juicy and rhythmically vital pieces.

Is the Vancouver Opera a good place to do this production?

I’m thrilled they asked me.

They were excited to get me because I did the premiere. But I’m excited because this will be my debut at that company. It’s an important opera company and has a fine reputation. In Canada, the biggest opera company is in Toronto, and then comes the Vancouver Opera.

This is also a brand-new production with all new designs and sets and video. From the models I’ve seen, the designs are excellent. They are making a big deal out of it. We will also do symposiums and other events. They’re putting as big effort into it.

I also like the cast. The role of Richard Nixon will be sung by Robert Orth (below, on left, during the Colorado Opera production).

He specializes in the role and has sung with Madison Opera. He also played Frank Lloyd Wright in the Chicago production of “Shining Brow (the Daron Hagen opera commissioned and premiered by the Madison Opera). So it’s a very good cast. Most of them have done “Nixon in China” before.

Might you do some part of the opera or even the whole opera in Madison?

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has already played the orchestral excerpt “The Chairman Dances,” but there really is no suite made from the score yet. And the Madison Opera has no plans to do it in the near future.

*                                          *                                       *

What about you, reader?

Do you like the music of John Adams?

What do you think of the opera “Nixon in China”?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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