Opera & Musical Theater

Revisiting Nixon In China

A conversation with director James Robinson and baritone Scott Hendricks about Houston Grand Opera’s latest production of John Adams’ Nixon in China, thirty years after its world premiere in Houston.

“We [usually] look at [Nixon] as a bit of a villain, with some justifications… this, however, is Nixon as kind of a hero. It’s a heroic opera… it doesn’t have the taint of Watergate in it. You see all facets of Nixon as a person…” says James Robinson, the director of Houston Grand Opera’s production of Nixon in China by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman.

This opera, about Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to China in 1972, was first premiered in Houston thirty years ago in 1987. It was the composer’s first opera, and according to Robinson, “changed opera composition… [and] led the way for a whole new way of approaching opera.” It also showcased a remarkable historical event between the United States and a major Communist power at the time.

Scott Hendricks, who is singing the role of Nixon, says that he approaches the role by focusing on the event itself, his relationship to Pat Nixon, and Nixon’s mannerisms, though not by means of a stereotypical impersonation (à la Rich Little). And, with regards to the technical aspects of singing the role, Hendricks doesn’t see much differentiation in his approach to roles from older operas as compared to contemporary ones. “Obviously there are difficulties, for example the mixed meter and the repeated text… but it really wasn’t that difficult,” he says, adding that he just digs in and learns the part like he would in any other production.

Hear my conversation with Robinson and Hendricks above, where we talk about the political ramifications of Nixon’s visit and how they handle such a complicated public figure. If you’d like to get more in-depth with the opera itself, check out Dacia Clay’s conversation with Michael Remson on these episodes of Classical Classroom!

Nixon in China will open at Houston Grand Opera this weekend on January 20th, running until the 28th. Go here for information and tickets.

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