‘Nixon in China,’ emotions

In the world of opera, the merest mention of Peter Sellars’s name causes a stir. Every staging of Mozart’s works in the 1980s by the now 50-year-old director generated alternating waves of indignation and enthusiasm, depending on the age, expectations and temperament of the audience. His «Cosi fan Tutte» was set in a restaurant, «Le Nozze di Figaro» was at the Trump Tower in Manhattan, «Don Giovanni» was in a ghetto, and «Zaide,» one of the great composer’s earliest works – never completed and rarely performed – was staged last year at the Mostly Mozart festival in London and focused on illegal immigrants. In 2001, Sellars staged Bach’s highly popular Cantata, BWV 82, as the swan song of a man dying in hospital. According to a review in The New Yorker at the time, one member of the audience at this performance stormed out screaming, while others said that it was one of their most important experiences with respect to Bach’s music. His staging at the Glyndebourne festival of Handel’s oratorio «Theodora,» in which the entire choreography is played out by the chorus using its hands, has gone down in history. The inspiration behind John Adams’s «Nixon in China» also belongs to Sellars. In 1983, at a time when former US president Richard Nixon’s name conjured up only negative associations, Sellars met with Adams and pitched his idea. This opera marked the beginning of a long partnership that included «The Death of Klinghoffer,» «A Flowering Tree» and more recently «Doctor Atomic,» an opera inspired by J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the first atomic bomb. Sellars was unable to attend the Athens premiere of «Nixon in China» – organized by the Greek National Opera and staged at the Athens Concert Hall – last Friday, as he was busy working on the staging of Wagner’s «Tristan and Isolde» at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. On this production he worked with acclaimed video artist Bill Viola, raising expectations of a «21st century Tristan,» according to the local press. Kathimerini was able to get a few minutes of his time just before he had to slip into another rehearsal. The distance between Athens and California did nothing to quench the enthusiasm and vitality in his voice. «I can’t tell you how sorry I am that I won’t be able to make it,» he said. «And I’ve never been to Greece.» Sellars fondly remembers the days when they were staging the first production of «Nixon in China.» «I will never forget the artistic energy of those days,» he said. «We had gathered a group of many different people, and the mix was explosive. Where can I begin: fantastic music, choreography, so many young, creative artists. I think that ‘Nixon in China’ succeeded in covering a wide range of emotions, something quite unusual at the time for opera. I mean that it had a lot of humor, but there were also a lot of dramatic scenes. It was not just a comedy or just a drama. It is a story that brings out mixed feelings.» As far as Adams’s music is concerned, he does not think it is minimalist at all. «It is anything but,» he says. «It is rich, with humor and so many songs. I assure you, it is the opposite of minimalism.» Though some may today regard the figure of Nixon as one belonging in the past, the issue of China remains as topical as ever. «We have more China today that ever before,» says Sellars. «Look at how much China you have in your own home, how much China you wear going to work; China is everywhere. I would actually say that when we first staged the opera in the 80s, China was just an abstract idea to most people.» Nixon, in contrast, was anything but abstract during those rocky times. The Americans loathed the president who had become embroiled in the Watergate scandal. How far did the opera succeed in changing the public’s view of Nixon? «Look, there are still a lot of folks who hate him. I wouldn’t say that impressions of Nixon have changed, only that the debate is now open. You can’t get rid of historical figures that easily. And don’t forget that the other lead character in the opera is Mao, also a very highly charged political figure. Many believe that Mao was a monster, but we show moments of Mao’s which illustrate that he was more than just one thing.» Sellars admits to facing something of a dilemma when it comes to classical versus 20th century opera. «With the older works we see the same thing we see in cinema: People like going back to the classic masterpieces. New productions are also based on everything that existed before. You can recognize a lot of moments of classical opera in modern works. But that’s not the issue. The issue is to transfuse new energy into a work that was written one or even two centuries ago. That’s what it’s all about. What the audience sees on stage has to have something to do with his own life, today, in April 2007.» The final performances of «Nixon in China» will take place on Wednesday and Saturday. For information, tel 210.361.2461 or 210.728.2333.

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