‘Nixon in China’ Opening Night: Kansas City, MO

The opening night of John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China, was nearly unblemished in all aspects. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City had waited roughly fourteen years to produce this immensely creative approach to a monumental historical event for both America and China. In fact, the two principals, James Maddalena (Richard Nixon) and Allan Woodrow (Mao Tse-tung) were top-notch as to vocal technique and sheer acting. Same for Daniel Belcher (Chou En-lai), Richard Paul Fink (Henry Kissinger), and Audrey Luna (Madame Mao); these performers were quite obviously well-rehearsed and enthusiastic about their respective roles. The director, Michael Cavanagh, had recently directed this opera for the Vancouver Opera.

However, this unique production was held inside Kansas City, Missouri’s Muriel Kauffman Theatre, which is recognized for its superlative technological capacity. Indeed, aside from the performances, the critical point about this production must be the omnipresent and material role that technology played. To be specific, composer John Adams desired amplification for both singers and the orchestra; he sought out a certain type of sound. Further, the use of a projector screen that consumed the stage was pivotal to the great success of act one. An illusion was manufactured: the audience seemed to witness President Nixon on his airplane, the Spirit of ’76, as it flew, and as it landed at the Peking Airport. Sound Designer Braxton Cornelius and Video Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis deserve considerable recognition. Also, Erhard Rom’s scenes were memorable — especially Nixon’s plane and Mao’s gargantuan podium.

The synopsis: On February 21, 1972, President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger arrived at the airport and subsequently Chinese Premier Chou En-lai greeted them. Importantly, Nixon, Chou, and Kissinger met with Mao Tse-tung and a discussion ensued concerning each nation’s perspectives; and Nixon attended a formal banquet for the American delegation. The second act focused on First Lady Pat Nixon. She toured a health center, pig farm, glass factory, and primary school in order to properly discern Chinese culture. The Nixons attended a ballet entitled “The Red Detachment of Women”. Act three, which was only 35-minutes, entailed both Nixon and Mao coming to the sober realization that no significant progress would be made.

Baritone James Maddalena, the originator of the role, sounded fundamentally polished as the anti-communist Nixon, particularly in the first act. He has mastered several of Nixon’s traits and behaviors too — using a handkerchief to treat his excessive sweating, hunching his back forward as he walked. Maddalena was Nixon in the Houston Grand Opera debut in 1987. Tenor Alan Woodrow did a fine job as Mao, but baritone Richard Paul Fink had too much fun as Henry Kissinger; in act two Kissinger appeared to have taken up ballet and could be seen physically flirting with a dancer as the Nixons watch. Baritone Daniel Belcher was vivid and convincing as Chou En-lai, especially in act three: he expressed sadness due to the lack of progress. But soprano Audrey Luna as the feisty, true believer Madame Mao was most remarkable; she nearly embodied the Cultural Revolution.

Overall, this production of Nixon in China was quite extraordinary and exceptional. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City should be proud.

Photo Credits: C Cory Weaver/Lyric Opera of Kansas City