When the American baritone Franco Pomponi was invited to sing the lead role in John Adams’ Nixon
in China at one of the major Paris opera companies, he was ready to refuse. “From what I knew about the opera, I didn’t think I would like it,” he said.
“Besides, it was about this guy who left his office in disgrace, and the country was still reeling from the crises of that period, so I first said, ‘No!’.” Then his agent rattled his cage, reminding him he was being offered the title role of a major opera, “And this is Paris,” the agent added for emphasis.
After that persuasive argument, “I thought about it for 12 seconds and said, ‘Yes’.”
Pomponi is in San Diego to reprise his Richard M. Nixon role in San Diego Opera’s upcoming production of Nixon in China, which will open at Civic Theatre on Saturday, March 14, at 7:00 p.m.
That 2012 Théâtre du Châtelet production of Adams’ signature stage work turned out to be a huge success—“The French audiences loved Nixon in China,” Pomponi effused—and once he actually got into the opera, Adams’ music won him over as well. “When all the opera’s moving parts come together,” he observed, “it’s like taking the back off of a Swiss watch and seeing how everything works in perfect synchronization.”
Opera singers are not accustomed to creating characters based on personages from recent history. All the iconic opera roles are either fictional or mythological—think of Carmen, Mimi, Violetta, Figaro, Don Giovanni, Faust, and Orpheus—or those few who are historical figures were drawn from events in centuries long past, e.g. Verdi’s Don Carlo or the Swedish monarch in his A Masked Ball.
All of John Adams’ and librettist Alice Goodman’s characters in Nixon in China come from the Chinese and American political scene of the early 1970s, however, and their personas still resonate. “Because of film, we can actually see Nixon on YouTube,” said Pomponi, “and so there are a couple of Nixon gestures that I use from those clips. But there is a danger of getting stuck in a mere caricature or some kind of imitation.”
Indeed, Adams initially resisted director Peter Sellars’ proposal in the early 1980s to turn the Nixon visit to China into an opera precisely because the composer feared an operatic incarnation of the former President would invite comparisons to the legion of standup comedians who did lame Nixon impressions.
For soprano Maria Kanyova, the challenge of singing Pat Nixon had nothing to do with avoiding caricature, but rather finding the person behind the stoic mask of the First Lady standing in her husband’s Presidential shadow. Kanyova has sung this role with the Ravinia Festival and six opera companies, including a stellar production I attended at San Francisco Opera in 2012, and she also sings Pat Nixon on the Naxos complete recording of the opera.
“For me, singing her in the opera was an honor, and, out of respect to her, I felt obliged to extensively research her background. Because she had a tough childhood and overcame such difficulty, I felt it was important for me to portray her resultant humanitarianism and good will.”
In the opera, Goodman provides a touching scene where Pat Nixon rushes to the aid of a downtrodden Chinese peasant girl, although this happens not in some rustic village, but rather in a stylized dance drama by choreographed by Chairman Mao’s wife and staged to entertain the visiting Americans.
Pomponi noted how the opera juxtaposes Pat Nixon’s well-known aversion to the limelight with her second-act tour of a rural commune and the historic Summer Palace, where Adams gives her the expansive aria “This Is Prophetic!”
“In Pat’s escorted visit to the school and the farm, she has to be a figurehead. In spite of herself, all of a sudden she is America in China.”
“At the time it was written, we had a different view of the former president,” Kanyova observed, “and many young people really didn’t know who Nixon was. I think he was surely born to be a politician, although one of his quirks was his trouble with speaking–he did not have John F. Kennedy’s eloquence. The opera portrays his insecurity and awkwardness, yet it also gives us a picture of his softer private moments with Pat.”
Although Nixon in China is centered on an event that changed Cold War politics, these singers don’t see it as merely political drama. “The story is bigger than an account of conflicting ideologies, but is rather about an encounter that made a time of peace and changed the face of the world,” Kanyova said. “So I think it is more about hope than mere history.”
“We know from the records that privately Nixon and Kissenger were frustrated that their visit was so minutely choreographed, and they feared it was little more than empty television,” said Pomponi. “Yet everything China is today started with that handshake between Nixon and Mao.”
The four Civic Theatre performances of Nixon in China are March 14, 17 & 20, 2015, at 7:00 p.m. and the Sunday matinee, March 22, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets: sdopera.com or (619) 533-7000