A unique opera comes to San Diego
David Dixon | Contributor
An opera about a former president of the United States visiting communist China in 1972 might seem like an unusual idea.
In fact, when “Nixon in China” first premiered in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, many critics had mixed reactions. Some were not sure what to make of John Adams’ minimalist music or Alice Goodman’s libretto.
But time has been kind to the operatic piece, and it has since been reproduced all over the world the last few decades.
A new interpretation from Director James Robinson, starring acclaimed baritone Franco Pomponi, will have a limited engagement with the San Diego Opera March 14, 17, 20, and 22. This is the first time the piece has been performed in San Diego.
Robinson has his own theory about why reviewers have warmed up to the story over the years.
“There are always new pieces, whether they’re plays or operas, that come out and people don’t know what to think of them,” he said. “They might be a little too close to the subject matter before people have a chance to step back and reassess it. I think with this one, it was just a very original subject and nobody had really heard anything like this. Now that it’s been produced so many times, a newer generation of people have come to appreciate it.”
Although Robinson and Pomponi have never worked together on “Nixon In China,” neither of them are strangers to the opus. Robinson has directed renditions for numerous companies including Vancouver Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre, and Opera Colorado.
Pomponi’s introduction was a televised version staged by the Houston Grand Opera and shown on PBS.
“At the time, I had never seen or heard anything like it before,” Pomponi said.
The day after seeing “Nixon in China” live at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Pomponi got a call asking if he would play Nixon in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet.
“At first I didn’t think it was possible, so I looked at the score and I had a lot of talks with my agent who thought it would be great to do the title role in Paris,” he said. “It turned out to be a fantastic experience.”
To get prepared for the part in Paris, Pomponi conducted a lot of research in order to channel the spirit of Nixon.
“I must have watched between 40-50 documentaries about the time period,” Pomponi said. “I watched documentaries on Mao Zedong’s March as well as the Trial of Jiang Qing [known to many as Madame Mao].”
Pomponi said he didn’t want to do a direct imitation of the infamous Head of State.
“I’m more interested in the man that he was,” he said. “He was a very iconic president. He was egomaniacal and completely frail at the same time. He had a lot of paradoxes … there is a lot of information to grab onto. The psychology is really important to me.”
Robinson feels that Nixon comes across as somewhat empathetic throughout the evening.
“There are times where he does have his meltdowns, but it’s a very fair depiction of him,” he said. “The opera is a fictionalized account, but I think that is what the creators intended to do.”
The director believes that people who are intrigued by Nixon’s life and have never seen an opera before will enjoy “Nixon in China.”
“People who remember Nixon in that time will find it fascinating,” he said.
Robinson also feels that it will hold equal appeal for music lovers.
“Because it does require a lot of really great singing, I think an opera audience is going to like the piece,” he said.
“Nixon in China,” presented by the San Diego Opera, will see a limited engagement March 14 – 22 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, located at 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. For more information, specific show dates and times, and tickets, visit sdopera.com.
—A fan of film and theatre from a very young age, David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.