Opera may be considered a dead-serious art form, but it’s also absolutely, patently ludicrous. There’s a reason why the first introduction to opera for most people in their late 20s and 30s came through Bugs Bunny: there’s something inherently cartoonish about the prospect of people getting dressed up in silly costumes, singing all the time, and stabbing each other. Excess is at the heart of opera, and it’s what’s kept me from giving it a shot – it’s always been just over that line dividing rewarding high art and the kind awash in pompous absurdity. Also, so much of it is just old, chock-full of sentimental allusion, and noxious frippery of the 18th and 19th centuries. Trying to relate to such stuff always seemed the height of overweening pretension.
I only learned living composers were still writing major operatic works in 2008, when Doctor Atomic, composed by John Adams (pictured left), debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (top photo: Gerald Finley, as Robert Oppenheimer, and the cast). I was attracted by its subject – the Manhattan Project’s creation of the atom bomb in New Mexico – and intrigued to see how the things I was just beginning to value in modern classical music (dissonance, abstraction, and conceptual daring) would translate into a lavish, unwieldy spectacle of operatic form. I’m still not sure how I feel about that work, having not listened to anything much other than rock at the time, and was consequently unprepared for opera’s radically different musical world. It all seemed so stiff, somehow – the mostly static stage layout, the largely immobile chorus and the dry, almost affectless tone of much of the recitative. Some of this was probably the opera’s problem – the libretto (the words to the music), by Peter Sellars, consisted of snippets from contemporaneous historical documents surrounding atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer and his team’s cataclysmic breakthrough. While an admirable attempt to pay respect to a serious subject, sticking to the dusty stuff of record also sucked some of the dramatic air out of the work, leaving it, as a friend of mine appropriately described, “inert.”
To write a modern opera is to grapple with a basic conceptual question: How does one make something so dependent on the rotund absurdities of an aristocratic or mythical past comprehensible in an irony-soaked, media-saturated middle-class world? How are we, as an audience, supposed to process the attempt? It’s not totally unreasonable to just write the whole thing off, and stick to Verdi if you’re an opera fan, or to atonal symphonies or experimental set pieces if you’re into modern music. The opera leading me to reconsider my stance is also the opera making the form legitimate territory for modern artists: Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, which premiered in 1976. It answered the questions just posed by mostly chucking the whole framework. To some ears, Einstein on the Beach is barely an opera at all. There’s not much real singing, at least in the lyric-based, emotion-driven sense that has always formed the meat of operatic experience. Rather the libretto is made up of odd scraps of free verse (which are spoken, usually), solfege syllables (do, re, mi), or simple numbers, chanted rhythmically with varying degrees of expression, to an assortment of synthesized drones and circular keyboard lines. Supplementing these are long, intensely repetitive and relentlessly paced musical segments, mostly relying on frenetic electric keyboards.
I must state here that I haven’t seen the opera (it was last staged in 1992, and is being revived for a short tour next year; you should totally go); I have only listened to the two full recorded versions, one made in 1979 by Tomato Records (pictured left), the other in 1993 by Nonesuch. So, I can’t tell you exactly what happens onstage, but the music itself and some cursory research have led me to believe that it has to be fairly bananas. There’s no plot, and the staging, by Robert Wilson, from what I’ve seen in pictures and brief filmed snippets, looks like a mixture of interpretive dance, multi-media-style projections, and neon-lit, grid-filled sets. A character with Einstein’s iconic hair and mustache plays the violin, serving as the main character. In other words, it’s brazenly avant-garde, not so much interested in upsetting tradition as completely disdainful of it. Glass managed to incorporate his early affection for frantic, arpeggio-laden extravaganzas into a singular theatrical and musical language, which still sounds unearthly because it is so utterly unique. In choosing Einstein as a subject, Glass found a dramatis personae who reflected something laying at the heart of his music, a combination of science and mysticism, or rather the point at which formal theory becomes so abstracted it transcends logic and approaches the spiritual. Equations become spells, chemistry becomes alchemy, math becomes wizardry, time coalesces into a palpable mass. But if there’s a reason why Einstein on the Beach has remained a touchstone of modern music, it’s because, even as it scraps the conventions of classical opera, it also embraces and enhances all of the fusty old traditions. Think of the uninitiated listener’s idea of a stereotypical opera: long, shrill, and incomprehensible. Einstein on the Beach lasts around five hours, operates almost entirely in the upper registers, and while it’s not in a foreign language, it may as well be.
Like much of Einstein’s thinking, Glass and Wilson’s opera confronts paradox, creating something both unsettlingly new and eerily familiar. In doing so, it opened up the sealed world of opera to modernity in its jarring variety. All of this is a long way of getting around to the Met’s recent production of John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which premiered in 1987 and has arguably eclipsed Einstein on the Beach as the best-known representative of modern opera. It’s not hard to see why. Based on an intensively covered historical event and full of bold-faced names expressing vehemently powerful emotions, Nixon in China is many things that Einstein on the Beach isn’t: concrete, plot-driven, character-based. These aspects of the work have invited no small amount of criticism. Max Frankel, who was actually in China with Nixon, mused in The New York Times about the opera’s relationship to fact, arguing its attempts at “profundity may strike the well-informed as parody.” Zachary Woolfe, in The New York Observer, opines that the libretto, by poet Alice Goldman, is too “willfully abstruse.” Frankel complains the real Nixon “embodies a lot more intrigue, pretension, and paranoia than the smooth Nixon baritone up onstage,” while Woolfe wonders why, near the end of Act 1, the president suddenly begins muttering, “The rats begin to chew the sheets.” It doesn’t matter that this is an apt nautical metaphor (Nixon has just finished comparing America to a ship navigating tricky waters. The sheets in this case are the sails). The startling burst of cognitive and musical dissonance, with its vision of seething forces undermining the national fabric, not to mention the inherent sexual undertones, is as profound a portrayal of the era’s paranoia as any number of Oval Office tapes or movie scripts. Because it deals with people and events in living memory, Nixon in China has been treated differently than other operas. Frankel, for one, fails to consider the opera may be more concerned with perceptions than history, choosing to focus on the farrago of images, desires, memories, and delusions comprising the way we choose to view our time in the world.
The first major aria gestures in this direction. “News has a kind of mystery,” Nixon declares, later adding, “It’s prime time in the USA!” Adams’ music for this act takes Glass’ repetitive arpeggios and marries them to strong, brass-driven melodic lines, the briskness of which evokes both the martial rush of historical events and the underlying eddies of cosmic time, in which earthly notions of progress and change begin to dissolve. In a neat trick, the music and libretto manage to find a balance between reality and reflections, between the actual and the abstract. But if Act I – the President’s arrival, his first meeting with Mao, and an elaborate state dinner – hints at matters beyond the strictly literal, Acts II and III make this theme explicit. Act II begins with Pat Nixon waxing ecstatic about her childhood while touring Chinese factories and farms, accompanied by almost manically cheerful peasants. Does Pat sense something amiss in the visions of happy industry presented before her? “This is prophetic!” she sings, standing in front of the Summer Palace. “Why regret / life which is so much like a dream?” It’s here that Woolfe’s criticism about opacity could apply, even though the first line comes from a direct sound bite. What, exactly, is being prophesied is unclear, and we’re left pondering how Pat’s visions of an America filled with comedians, the Unknown Solider, and Gypsy Rose Lee could be foretold by an ancient Chinese castle.
Later, she and her husband attend a propaganda play, in which a character who resembles Kissinger (and is, in fact, played by the same actor) sexually assaults a brave Communist woman. We spend most of the act watching the Nixons watch this play, which is filled with dancing, crude theatrics, and peasants pretending to be brutal capitalist exploiters. Ultimately, the Nixons intervene in matters and chaotic shenanigans ensue, only to be reined in by a domineering Madame Mao shutting things down with a massive, thundering aria. It’s a welter of manipulation, ambiguous identity, and confused motives, overtly blurring the line between theater and reality. The music is louder and more traditionally dramatic, oscillating between Wagner’s stentorian syncopation and the Big Band-inflected bop of old radio plays. What would be powerful and moving in another context is undercut by deliberate artificiality of events the music is accompanying. Here a deliberately uncomfortable friction is being set up. And judging by the muttering and shifting of the audience that surrounded me at the Met, it does its job too well.
After all this storm and stress, Act III feels like an anticlimax, and I think many critics’ negative reaction to the opera stem from it ending on such an odd note. To music so slow and drifting it could be playing in the next room over, the Nixons, the Maos, and the Chinese premier, Chou En-Lai, all in their separate hotel-room beds, take turns singing of their pasts, alternating between the days before history thrust them upon the world stage, and meandering along the bleak shores of the present. In a traditional opera, the last act brings together the primal, opposing forces that have driven the plot – human passion and the iron hand of destiny (or in a comedy, coincidence), to a titanic confrontation. Nixon, on the other hand, ends in separation, the characters cast off from their lives, the history they’ve made, and from each other. Indeed, the opera even separates from itself, when Madame Mao breaks the fourth wall and directly demands that the orchestra play a different song. Nixon in China doesn’t so much end as peter out with a sleepless Chou En-Lai memorably musing, “Outside this room, the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass.” That’s it. No revelations, no deaths or epiphanies, just the mysterious weight of nature, cold and inhuman. When critics like Woolfe suggest we should look at older works for the sort of satisfaction opera is supposed to bring, I think it’s this lack of catharsis he’s getting at. In choosing to wind down from a distance with disconnection, in a vague and enigmatic dissatisfaction, Nixon in China may actually be more true to current lived experience than it’s been given credit. And if that makes it a bit of a letdown, well, that should be chalked up to realism as well.
Top photo: Doctor Atomic at the Met; courtesy: Rialto Distribution. Portrait of John Adams: Margaretta Mitchell. Photos of Nixon in China at the Met: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.