22. Nixon in China at The Met
I’ve probably gone up to New York for the Metropolitan Opera as many times as a would be musician in his 20’s who tries and fails to be a cheapskate could permit. But until this trip, I wouldn’t dare take the step I’ve taken hundreds of times in Baltimore and Washington. At the Meyerhoff or Kennedy Center, I routinely make it a point of honor to buy the cheapest ticket, then sneak into the front rows while dragging friends kicking and screaming for their lives with me. But the Met is far more intimidating - not because it’s such a legendary opera house, only because the front rows are so expensive that I have fiery visions of getting assaulted violently by ushers for even trying.
But necessity dictated what followed. I could barely hear the singers from my top-tier back-row perch during Act I. So after intermission, Il Giovine and I moved up to coveted (by me at least) mid row seats of the orchestra. There I was, finally, at the very nexus of American opera - witnessing a show dismissed by many as the ‘CNN opera’ finally accepted as the classic of the American Stage which it deserves to be called.
Adams has gotten all sorts of derogatory commentary for the perceived leftist slant of his operas, particularly for The Death of Klinghoffer - his opera about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. But the sniping was already present in the reception of Nixon in China. Many people alleged that the creative team of Nixon in China was drawing a kind of false moral equivalence between market capitalism which kills thousands and exploits millions of workers for lower wages and the dictatorial communism that murders hundreds of millions of its own people. Obviously, if this were the case, there would be a problem. But it’s not. The point of Alice Goodman’s (rather abstract) libretto is to get inside the heads of the people portrayed in this work, what makes Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, Mao and the Madame, think as they do. And in order to do that, she had to take it as a given that each of these players felt they were justified in believing everything they do. In almost every case - the sole exception of Henry Kissinger - Goodman accomplished that rather brilliantly.
(I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung)
And therein we come to the opera’s biggest problem, which is also it’s greatest strength: The Chinese Ballet in the 2nd act, which contains an evil capitalist landlord that is portrayed by...Henry Kissinger!...or is he Henry Kissinger? We suddenly find ourselves in a thoroughly strange hall of mirrors. Is it Kissinger playing the landlord in the Chinese ballet, or is it an actor meant to resemble Henry Kissinger in voice, mannerism and oafish behavior (in the opera that is), or is it just a coincidence? But it’s precisely this hall of mirrors which makes the work so compelling, Pat Nixon watches the whipping of an innocent girl and thinks it’s so real that she rushes onstage to help her. Madame Mao watches the same incident and sees a vengeful vindication of everything about the Cultural Revolution. The opera takes no side, it merely asks us to consider two virtually opposite views of the world, and to ask if an attempt at understanding between them is possible.
Once again, nothing about the libretto would matter if this were not tied to an absolutely brilliant score - exciting and gorgeous in equal measure - composing music fundamentally in the Philip Glass idiom that goes well past what Glass does within it. The minimalism itself is just a clay which Adams can mould into different patterns, here a little Glenn Miller to represent Richard Nixon’s thoughts, there a little Aaron Copland for Pat’s, here a little Wagner for Madame Mao, there a little Mussorgsky for the Chinese Crowds.
The end result is a myth for the 21st century, asking us to deeply think about the chances for understanding between cultures which still understand very little about one another.
22. The Barber of Seville
(Thomas Hampson singing Rossini the way it should be)
OK. Time for another confession. In over a quarter century of obsession with classical music, I‘ve barely listened to any Rossini. For me, he was fundamentally that guy with the cool overtures which the classical radio stations would put on as filler in between a Beethoven Symphony and some snoozer of a Baroque concerto from the Corelli/Tartini/Tortellini epoch which could make even me extremely happy to change the station to 98Rock.
I never had much prejudice against Rossini. The thought of really sitting down with the output of the other big Bel Canto composers like Bellini and Donizetti never filled me with excitement. But Rossini is another matter: Rossini knows exactly how absurd his operas (all operas?)are, and so he plays up all the ridiculousness - the incessant patter songs, the constant vocal runs that sound like machine gun fire, the obsessive rhythmic figures, the almost cocaine-binge level of propulsion, all sold to us at such a manic pitch that we don’t have the mental space to remember how ridiculous it is.
But with regard to Rossini’s most famous opera, there’s one other reason: Bugs Bunny.
Thanks to Bugs, I will never be able to listen to the opening melody to the Overture to the Barber of Seville without thinking “Welcome to my shop/let me cut your mop/let me shave your crop.” And it’s all over from there. It’s amazing that I’ve gotten this far in my life and until last month I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to The Barber of Seville all the way through It’s partially due to Bugs, a larger part was intellectual laziness. The fact that The Marriage of Figaro (which Mozart based on the play that was a sequel to the play this opera was based on) is probably my all time favorite opera/piece of music/experience in life makes this omission all the more humiliating. But the largest part was due to the fact that lots of recordings of Rossini bored me. Rossini is one of the ultimate singer vehicles: in Bel Canto repertoire, conductors let singers who are famous for their heavy voices get away with all sorts of unimaginative phrasing, monodynamic singing, and too-comfortable tempos which would enrage them if they were working on Verdi. The result was that Rossini sounded like a half-way rest area between Mozart and Verdi: lacking the beauty of the former and the drama of the latter.
(The amazing Act I finale courtesy of James Levine. As good as you could get in 1975.)
So this fall, I finally resolved to do one thing that I probably should have done years ago. I skipped the overture and searched for a recording that
might change my point of view. It took two minutes of searching through Napster’s excellent $15-a-month music service (RIP) to find a recording that looked interesting - one that starred Placido Domingo, not in the tenor role but in the principal Baritone role of Figaro himself (made long before he switched to Baritone repertoire). I looked at the rest of the cast-list, Kathleen Battle, Ruggero Raimondi, Frank Lopardo - almost every one of them singing half a fach (voicetype...roughly) heavier than the roles they usually play. And all of this with Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, whom years of radio experience taught me made easily the best of all Rossini overture recordings. Lo and behold, this opera really is as good as people say it is.
It’s still fairly common to view Rossini as a sort of layover in the journey of opera between Mozart and Verdi who wrote mostly comedies because he wasn’t great enough to write profundity. But Rossini is far too unlike either Mozart or Verdi to be compared to either. If there is anyone he could be compared to, it’s Gilbert and Sullivan - not for the incessant patter but for what the patter serves. In both cases, the high spirits are part of a greater desire to entertain. It simply does not take bad feeling for an answer.