“Nixon in China” is exciting opera for Vancouver!

Nixon in China opera presents contemporary Asian Pacific themes – perfect for Canada's Gateway to the Pacific.

Much is made of Vancouver's multicultural diversity and it's role as gateway to the Asian Pacific.  This is the land where Chinese first came to Canada through Victoria and Vancouver.  This is the land where the many Canadians look west over the Pacific, then travel to Asia.  And this is the land, home to the Vancouver Opera, which has been recently staging some very exciting opera such as it's First Nations stylized Magic Flute in 2007 and the commission of Naomi's Road (based on Joy Kogawa's novel Obasan) for its touring ensemble.

“Nixon In China” recalls the historic 1972 visit of American president Richard Nixon to Communist China, the first ever visit by an American president to China, one of the oldest civilizations in the world. In the lead up to it's Canadian premiere, Vancouver Opera has been hosting events and forums to help give the context of the opera, and it's significance to Vancouver' Chinese history, and Canada's role in the Asian Pacific.  Author Margaret MacMillan, author of 1919, and Nixon in China has been brought out to speak to the public, as well as Alexandre Trudeau, son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

This is the Canadian premiere of the original the debuted in Houston Texas.  And it is a significant event for Canadian opera.

It is an interesting opera, with contemporary staging and exciting lighting effects.  The music is reminiscent of Phillip Glass' arpeggiated music, and the songs are mostly non-lyrical.  But overall it is an exciting work that challenges and stimulates the mind.

The opera opens with a full size moving picture of Air Force One jet projected on the scrim.  A light inside the plane reveals a solitary Richard Nixon.  The light fades, revealing the plane again, which in turn rolls away into the distance.  The stage scrim lifts to reveal a mock of Air Foxe One jet on stage, and Richard Nixon steps out of the plane to wave to small crowd of waiting Chinese soldiers.

Richard Nixon is performed by Robert Orth, and it is becoming a signature role for him.  He perfectly captures the behavioral physical characteristics of Nixon, the hunched shoulders, and the movements.  He sings that he is making “a journey for peace.”

There are 6 lead singers in this opera, and they all play pivotal roles for both the music and the story lines.

Chinese Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En-lai is the main counterpoint to Orth's Nixon. He greets Nixon and has the last words of the opera.  Nixon's anxiety about the visit to China, and his place in history is met by Chou's philosophical statements.

Alan Woodrow’s Mao is a character that represents the mystery and vagueness of the Chinese political position, while bass baritone Thomas Hammon’s Kissinger provides some of the comic appeal, as the butt of jokes by both Nixon and Chou.  The real surprise is when Kissinger appears in the 2nd Act's Chinese opera to represent American Imperialism in the Socialist propaganda work of art.

Just how different America and China were apart in understanding and philosophy is wonderfully portrayed by Sally Dibblee’s Pat Nixon.  As a political leaders's wife she is taken on visits to a pre-school, a pig farms and the Ming Tombs.  It is at Tombs that she remarks that she likes the carvings of the stone animals it is a lovely place for a picnic.  She becomes particularly fond of an elephant statue, calling him Jumbo.

Tracy Dahl plays the role of Chi'ang Ching, wife of  Mao.  Her behind the scenes political machinations with the “Gang of Four” that emphasize Maoist philosophies are over the top, just like she was in real life.  The music changes to a sexy syncopation that emphasizes her difference with Chou's direction of foreign affairs and the eventual future progression of Communist China, as it late veered away from Maoist doctrine.

A Highlight of the production is the staging of the Chinese Opera, more martial arts and dance than singing as it is in reality.  Vancouver's Wen Wieng is the choreographer, and former National Ballet's Fu Guo is the featured performer.  It is a typical propaganda art piece about the oppression of workers, with a surprise allegorical visit by Kissenger as American capitalism.

This is an exciting production for Vancouver and Canadian opera.  The staging and direction are excellent.  While the sets are minimalist, it matches the austerity of the music and allows the emphasis to be on the music, and the libretto.  This is an opera to challenge the mind.  The content stimulates political and historical understanding, and opens up future possibilities.  Could a Canadian opera about the 1972 Canada Russia hockey series or Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope be next?  Why not!

in conversation with CBC's Alison Smith
March 17, 7:30 pm at Granville Island Stage.
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