In conversation with the cast of Nixon in China at the San Francisco Opera

Maria Kanyova, Hye Jung Lee and Simon O'Neill discuss their experience with John Adams' opera

San Francisco, 22 June 2012

Nixon in China

The summer season at the San Francisco Opera started a couple of weeks ago, and audience and critics agree that Nixon in China, the famous first opera by John Adams, represents one of the highlights of the operatic summer. The SF Opera presented a sober and subtle production from the Vancouver Opera, that highlights both the most literal and mythical aspects of Nixon's historical meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. The cast for this Nixon is an excellent one, and it was a pleasure to be able to speak to three of the protagonists: American soprano Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon), New-Zealander tenor Simon O'Neill (Mao Tse-Tung) and Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee (Chiang Ch'ing, aka Madame Mao, as she was known in the United States), who all make their San Francisco Opera debut.

Kanyova is acclaimed for her numerous interpretations and recordings of Pat Nixon and for premiering several works by contemporary composers (such as William Bolcom's A Wedding and Shulamit Ran's The Dybbuk). She specializes in Mozartian roles as well as in the verismo repertoire, and she is famous for portraying Violetta from La traviata, Nedda from I pagliacci, and Madame Butterfly.

Merola Opera Program alumnus Simon O'Neill has sung in the most prestigious opera houses, from Covent Garden to La Scala, and is known to audiences all over the world for his roles in the German repertoire (Siegfried, Lohengrin) as well as for his award-winning recordings, such as his solo album Father and Son. Wagner Scenes and Arias (EMI).

Still in her 20's, Lee is also an alumna of the Merola Opera Program and this Nixon represents her first professional engagement. She is a recent graduate from Indiana University, and she has also studied at Mannes College of Music, Seoul National University and Dresden Musik Hochschule. With her bright coloratura timbre, she has already won several awards (ARD International Music Competitions and Maria Callas International Music Competition, among others) and she is about to join Florida Grand Opera's Young Artist Program in September 2012.

Meeting with these members of the cast is a particularly interesting experience, as these singers are in very different phases of their career, and specialize in different repertoires. We meet in the SF Opera press room close to the main auditorium, where the working rehearsals for Attila are under way. The softened echo of Verdi's music makes for a pleasant background during our conversation.

Marina Romani: 'You all have different musical experiences with contemporary opera. I would like to start asking each one of you how Nixon in China fits in your repertoire.'

Simon O'Neill: 'You go first Maria, you're great at Adams' music!'

Maria Kanyova: 'Thanks, OK! I'm very fond of contemporary operas. My first professional experience was actually a world premiere, in an opera by Shulamit Ran called The Dybbuk. There were no notes on the page... so, if you can imagine! And my first experience with Nixon in China was with the Opera Theater of St. Louis, in 2004, in a different production. Since then, it seems like I do it every year – I've got to know that red dress very well!'

SON: 'I'd like to do this every year! I saw the production that made it into St. Louis, and I liked it, it was very surreal... and I love this production from the Vancouver Opera that the SF Opera is staging. They're both very subtle. I performed this role at the Minnesota Opera a few years ago, and I've sung quite a bit of contemporary music, too. For me, this work is an absolute joy, it's like an alcohol wipe... My career is full of Romantic German repertoire, which I love, but Adams is a new thing for my brain, it completely wipes away the pattern of the brain that I use for, say, Wagner. I have to learn in a completely different manner. And it's fantastic, I absolutely adore it.'

MK: 'I understand what Simon says, as I usually do verismo... Butterfly, Mimì, Violetta... I do consumptive parts a lot because people think I look sick!' – we all laugh. 'My mum says, "every opera you do, you die at the end!" So she really enjoys this one, because she can just watch it and enjoy it without crying! And I do a lot of 21st-century music, which I also love, because of the cleansing qualities that Simon mentioned. Adams is cleansing like Mozart is, too. Doing this type of repertoire helps you to go back to basics, vocally, so that other roles – for me, these big verismo roles – don't change your voice in the wrong way. Adams is similar to Mozart in the way that you have to sing it with utter precision, because it's so disjunct... if you don't, you are in so much trouble, from a vocal perspective. It has to be a streamlined singing, and it's also important to get all the words out. The poetry is set very well, but you have to be careful.'

SON: 'When I first heard Maria singing, I was speechless... I was like, "Oh my God, who's this woman!" And the cast here in San Francisco is a high-level class. Brian Mulligan is one of the finest Nixon's I've ever heard.'

Nixon in ChinaHye Jung Lee: 'Yes, Brian is wonderful! As for my experience with Nixon, when I read this score for the first time, I almost panicked because the rhythm is always shifting, and the whole opera is technically so demanding. So I took a lot of time to learn it. Once I got used to it, it started to work very well! It was an exciting feeling. Before Adams, I sang Adele from Die Fledermaus, Sophie from Der Rosenkavalier at Indiana University, and Giannetta from L'elisir d'amore.'

SON: 'I saw you singing Madame Mao's aria on television in Cardiff [for the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition], and that was just phenomenal!'

HJL: 'Thank you! That was such a great honour. They only chose one person for every country, so it was a very special opportunity to be part of the competition. I didn't expect to go to the final!'

MR: 'How are you experiencing the transition from being a student to becoming a professional singer?'

HJL: 'When I started rehearsing with the SF Opera company I was really nervous, because I had just graduated as a student. Sometimes, when I was walking to the bus stop, my legs were shaking! It's all so intense. And in this cast, they are all professionals – except for me! But then, from the first rehearsals, they've been so supportive and they said really kind words to me... so I feel relaxed now!'

MR: 'Can you all talk a little about the role you're performing, and your personal relationship with it?'

SON: 'I love Mao! I'm a big believer that in order to sing a character you have to love it, even if he's a baddie. Historically, this man was a tyrant. This snippet of Mao Tse-Tung in 1972 is quite a narrow one: he is a powerful man, but he is weak in his body, and he had nearly died a month before. But his brain still raises a shout. In this opera, Mao suddenly jumps into an earlier time in his life – like all the other characters. This happens particularly in the third act and, for me, a little bit in the first act as well: instead of being Mao the 70-year old, I can be a younger version of him.

The first act is very important for the arc of my character, of course. In that act, Mao has this big scene. I love the scene in Mao's studio because it starts off with historical bullet points, but then it becomes an inner battle between Mao and Nixon, and Adams' music portrays this emotional and mental fight so beautifully. I also find it very subtle how you don't get to sing together in this opera, like in Wagner. You don't really sing in thirds or in ensembles – you can sing your lines together with another character's lines, but not together in a conventional way. There's an interplay between the characters, they overlap in strange ways, and I love that.

Because of the many faces of this character, the big challenge for an opera company is to cast this role. In this case, they cast an Irish-New Zealander. I have to become Mao on stage, and the SF Opera has geniuses in the make-up room, and that contributes enormously to your character. I love spending time in the make-up room trying to make this transformation possible.

In the end, I would say that the most important thing is to study characters that bring to the stage a recent historical event, especially for an opera like this. People want to recognize what they see on stage, both on the physical and on the historical side.'

Nixon in ChinaMR: 'You portray your Mao as a man who can barely move without his three secretaries' help, and he is constantly shaking, almost falling down at every step. Do these physical challenges make the singing more difficult?'

SON: 'He is a weak man, his legs are shaking, he can barely walk. I try to use it to my advantage, being a decrepit old dude! What I mean is that when I sing and act a role like this, I use what I'm doing, physically, and I think that's true for all of us performers. Also, he is unbalanced, but he is quick!'

MK: 'Simon could stand on his head and sing this part! He makes it sound easy!'

SON: 'Ah ah, thanks! This role is written in a way that it could be done both by a Siegfried and by a Mime. Also, you have to dose your voice because of the microphones...'

MK: 'Yes, this opera requires microphones. Last time I did it in St. Louis, it was a 900-seat house, approximately, it was a very intimate situation. They thought they could do it without mics, because of the small size of the auditorium. But Adams said that he wanted them nonetheless, and he is right about that, because it's so heavily orchestrated, with many electronic instruments. It's a very unusual orchestral fabric, and once all the instruments are in there, it's quite heavy.'

SON: 'The SF Opera cast very powerful singers, that work well with this type of orchestration. Brian [Mulligan, playing Nixon], Hye Jung, Maria... these are Rolls-Royce voices! And the sound-technicians are brilliant in dosing the level of the amplification. And you cannot say "Oh, but they're mic'ed, how can you tell how their real voice is?" Well, you can tell, because with or without mics, you can hear the resonance in the voice. With a mic, you do exactly what you do without it: you have to sing in your full voice. This was the first instruction from our maestro Lawrence Renes on our first day of rehearsal: "You're all wearing mics, but I don't want to hear one difference from when you sing without."'

MK: 'And for us it came naturally. When I do my role, singing through a mic does not make a difference. The most important thing, like in all operas, is to know your character very well, as Simon noted. I think this is the eighth time I am performing this role, and I do a little more research every time. I think what is most profound about Pat Nixon is that she was wildly popular even after Watergate. It says a lot about her character. Most of the times we forget about the first ladies – even presidents do – but she was very much an icon. One thing that set her apart from other first ladies is that is that she grew up in very hard times. I was so taken by that... I don't personally know anyone who had to take care of their siblings at the age of twelve, I don't know people that had to grow up so quickly. She had the courage and perseverance to overcome all that: she worked every day and took care of her family. She went to college and became a teacher. For that time, it's extraordinary that she didn't end up being a housewife. In fact, she became incredibly successful. Also, her mantra was volunteerism. She was criticised by some when she made that decision, but I've been reading about it, and it's very interesting. With volunteerism, what she was really saying is that if we go out there, and we give up some of our time, we'll make a difference. She was that kind of person.

Nixon in ChinaIn her relationship with Nixon, she seems to be in the background, but she is very much present, and you can see that in this opera. She's the one taking care of him. Moreover, they were a political team, that's also why they were considered to be cold to each other in public. He loved her so deeply... they said that upon her death, at her funeral, he cried harder than anyone had ever seen him cry and, again, that's a tribute to the kind of relationship that they had. She stood by his side, she was a very important person in his political career. And that trip to China was a defining moment for her as well – she publicly stated that the trip changed her opinion on many fronts. So, when I'm performing my part, I remember and include all those things, and I also keep in mind the time period, because I believe that's an important aspect – where we are now, and where they were then, and how a woman could represent other women at that time. All of those things come together each time I do the part. She also had a sense of humour, that in this opera comes out here and there.'

MR: 'What strikes me about the way Adams and librettist Alice Goodman wrote the controversial parts of Richard and Pat Nixon is the subtlety in their relationship. Especially in the first act, they exchange just a few words, but you can tell that they have a unique, almost secret, bond.'

MK: 'Yes, I alluded to that before, and I think that's a very important aspect: people thought that Nixon didn't care for his wife or didn't connect with her, but actually they had made a pact not to be demonstrative in public. But she was his right-hand woman, and she would help him in public all the time – even for little but meaningful things, like when she would say, "You're sweating a little bit, take your handkerchief..."'

SON: 'Yes, that's very important... In this production, a particular attention is paid to the details of the public appearance of these politicians. For example, the sweating had always been a problem for Nixon. In 1960, when he ran against Kennedy and they were on TV all the time, Kennedy would always look wonderful and Nixon would be sweating all the time. This was quite well known by those who followed presidential campaigns at that time.'

MK: 'Yes, he was an awkward man... and the sweating is a funny and realistic aspect, and it weaves its way into the opera. He was uncomfortable in his political shoes, but he learned how to be a public person. And needed Pat's strength, her calmness, and her level-headedness to pave the way for him.'

SON: 'The depth that you [Maria] can bring to this character is incredible. You've done it a few times, sure, but it's unique what you can bring to this role. And Hye Jung's Madame Mao is incredible as well...'

HJL: 'To prepare for my role, I read Chiang Ch'ing's work. Also, my parents lived in that period, and their personal stories contributed to my understanding of her character. She is a really interesting person to me, also because her personality is very far from mine! She is really rude, irritating and reckless, and also has a bad temper. She was the last wife of Mao and she is the most well known for playing a major role in the cultural revolution. She had always been very politically ambitious, even before she got married with Mao. That's why members of the Communist Parties all disapproved of the marriage. But Mao loved her so much, and she promised that she would not get involved in politics for thirty years. But during the cultural revolution she became the leader of the Gang of Four, and she killed so many people, and did so many bad things. She is a very strong person, but also a terribly bad one. When I'm singing her aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung," I think I need to convey power and brashness, and bring to the fore her impetuous and rude character.'

Nixon in ChinaMR: 'In its opening scenes, this opera seems to focus on the political and public life of the characters, while at the same time offering a reflection on the creation of history and myth-making through media and public rituals. Yet, as the story unfold, more intimate and reflexive aspects are brought to the surface. How do you interpret and perform the opera's arc?'

MK: 'I think the most profound aspect of the arc is that it does not really represent a progression, as it almost goes back in time. The history progresses, but then somehow reverses a little bit. The third act, especially, creates a profound emotional feeling. I think about it every time. We start to follow the characters' minds, their memories... it could even be that what happens at the end, it's happening after their death, and what we're really seeing is a wash of their memory from the past. And when Chen-Ye [Yuan, playing Chinese premier Chou En-Lai] sings at the end, "How much of what we did was good?", that's a reflection that everybody comes to. What did we do, what kind of mark did we make? And also, there's a dichotomy that occurs when we think of political figures: we always wonder what they are like in their personal life... and that's another level to it, another way to see how it progresses. We get to witness and hear more personal reflections and thoughts. In the end, I think this opera is a reflection on the past.'

SON: 'The second act finishes so fantastically, and a part of me would want that part to continue – and I'm not in that act, so when we're rehearsing I sneak out to the audience's seats and listen to it, and it astonishes me every time. Act II is a complicated one, because it also includes the ballet, and that glorious Götterdämmerung-ish ballet music. And yet, as Maria said, the final act is necessary to give another dimension to this opera. Act III is a strong, hunting act.'

MR: 'Lawrence Renes is an expert of Adams' music, having premiered Doctor Atomic both in its European premiere with the Netherlands Opera, and in its UK premiere at the English National Opera. Can you tell me about your experience working with him?'

HJL: 'It's really inspiring, because he really knows how to control this music, and he has many ideas on how to bring Adams' music to life. Also, he takes the time to create a good relationship with every member of the cast – he has helped me a lot, and I hugely enjoy working with him. There's such a good harmony within the group!'

SON: 'Yes, there's a wonderful harmony. He is a brilliant conductor, and he knows so much about vocal technique as well...'

MK: '... And he is extraordinary at focusing on the colours of the orchestra. He does incredibly detailed work. It's amazing to see him help the orchestra get to that colour that he has in mind, and feel the mood of every passage. And being technically adept is a must for this piece! And he is so positive... It's really extraordinary and helpful to have such a positive force, both for us singers and for the players, and to have someone who doesn't make you feel anxious. I think his last words yesterday were "Calm down. You're doing a wonderful job. It's going to be OK!" He keeps us concentrated while keeping us calm. He can turn the anxious feelings off and that's very special.'

SON: 'Yes, that's so important for any performance, and especially for this opera. This piece is technically very difficult, from many time signature changes to the vocal range. You can have a 3/8 bar, followed by a 3/4, then an 11/13... Initially, it's difficult to do that while also acting, but thanks to this amazing group of artists, we all found a balance between acting and paying attention to changes in the rhythm. And I know they say that Adams writes in a minimalist fashion but, for me, that's not the case in this opera! Think about the complexity of the second act. It's divine, it brings me to tears.'

MK: 'Yes, it's almost a Wagnerian section!'

HJL: 'Act II is my favourite too! The music is so mesmerizing. And I think the ballet scene shows really well who my character is – her story and her attitude. And also my relationship with Pat Nixon.'

SON: 'You know, people are surprised to see Hye Jung, this petite Korean woman, as Madame Mao, when she first walks around the stage... and then she comes out and rips it up becoming this crazy woman!'

HJL: 'Ah ah, yes, Madame Mao is an impetuous woman! I love that aria so much!'

MK: 'And the relationship between Pat Nixon and Madame Mao evolves on stage. I have to fit my way into it because the scene in act II in which we have this confrontation is so surreal. Pat does not exactly realize what's happening, and lot of what she experiences is in her mind – it's due to her emotional state, and to fatigue... as Pat, I say to myself, "Wait a minute... did I just see what I saw?" Many questions go off from that scene. I interpret it as a dream sequence. And therefore, that can be taken in any way: do Pat Nixon and Madame Mao have a real relationship? It's an interesting moment to perform because it's ambiguous.'

MR: 'What about your respective future projects and dream roles?'

SON: 'My dream role is Madame Mao, of course! That's so great!'

HJL: ' Yes, that would be fun!'

SON: 'I know! I wish! You know, there are several works by American composers that I would love to sing. For example, I would be delighted to do Moby-Dick [by Jake Heggie] at some point in my career. And Doctor Atomic is a great piece too. At the moment, I'm singing a lot of heavy Romantic German repertoire, particularly Beethoven and Wagner, especially with Wagner's bicentenary next year. I love doing that. When the sword needs to be brought out of the tree, I want to be that dude! When I need to catch the spear, I'll catch the spear! My life has always been full of Wagner... next year I'm going back to Italy, I'll be at La Scala and in Palermo, and that's very exciting. And I hope I can come back to San Francisco too, because I love singing here! They have such a brilliant orchestra. It's a great artistic team.'

MK: 'I think what I really like in my career is how versatile I am – I can go from Butterfly to Susanna. And the reason for this is that I enjoy focusing on acting. I like being Butterfly, and eventually becoming the president's wife, and then going to the Chicago Lyric and being a child, in Hänsel und Gretel. I'm excited for these challenges. In 2013, I'll be back here to sing in the world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Mark Adamo, and I'm really excited to be part of that!'

SON: 'I have to comment on Maria's focus on the acting... the reason why she can concentrate on the acting is because her voice is in extraordinary shape. Some people talk about the acting to camouflage their relatively average singing – not all of the time, but some times. It's so refreshing to be here in a cast that is bullet-proof. There's no technical issue with anyone. That's so cool! We can really concentrate on the acting as much as possible!'

MK: 'Yes, you can kind of sit back and relax, you don't have to sit on the edge and think "Am I going to hit that note?". You almost forget that it's difficult.'

HJL: 'Yes! I agree with Simon and Maria. And it's so wonderful to achieve that, to feel so comfortable!'

MR: 'And for you, Hye Jung? What are your future engagements and the roles that you would like to perform? You have a wonderful career ahead, you should list a thousand dream roles!'

HJL: 'Ah ah, yes! I would like very much to sing Gilda [from Rigoletto], and Lucia [di Lammermoor], because I think I have some fire here,' she places her hands upon her heart, 'and I feel I can do it! In September I will sing Papagena, and I'm very happy about that because that's really close to my character now! Some day I can sing the Queen of the Night too...'

MR: 'And I can't wait to see you in the bel canto repertoire!'

SON: 'True! I can't wait to see you in Lucia! I think the San Francisco audience will clearly see your potential... they will hear Madame Mao, and at the same time they will immediately imagine you in bel canto roles! They're very lucky!'

HJL: 'Thank you!'

By Marina Romani

Photos: Poster of Nixon in China by artist Michael Schwab; all other photos are from the current production of Nixon in China (Cory Weaver/ San Francisco Opera).


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