Review: Eugene Opera’s Nixon in China

From the mezzanine at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, just before it started.

I loved the Eugene Opera’s daring, amusing, smart, challenging production of Nixon in China. If I could see it every day for a week, I would.

Sadly for me, that tremendous effort – the rehearsing, the choral practice, the designs, the costumes, the tech rehearsals – ended when the curtain fell at 5:37 on Sunday afternoon, just about three hours after it all began. This is always the case with the Eugene Opera, which produces usually two shows a year (though I’d rank the semi-staged Il Trovatore, the extra show of 2009, up there with the best things I’ve seen in Eugene) with two or three performances of each show. I’ll save for another day my encomiums to the effort, because effort is not all – performance is all, in this case, at least for the audience members who pay $40 to $90 to see the opera. And in this case, the performances were well worth the money.

Once, when I was attending a fabulous arts journalism fellowship right at the beginning of the hemorrhaging of arts journalists from newspapers (we were the canaries in the coal mine; by the time the economy crashed in September of 2008 and then ad revenues crashed along with it, we were mostly long-gone, or a deeply endangered breed), I got schooled by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times for reviewing a Handel opera as if it were theatre instead of opera. After Act I of Nixon in China, the guys sitting behind me said, “It’s more like a play than an opera, isn’t it?” (They didn’t say that after Act III, though, so I don’t know if they were still thinking it.)

Therefore, I know it’s possible that one of the reasons I liked this staging, and the Met’s 2011 HD broadcast staging, of Nixon in China is that the entire thing is more like theatre. It would be a postmodern-ly absurdist play, a play that wings off into poetry – Pat Nixon’s “This is prophetic” aria, more like an incantation, in Act II makes for a sweet, naïve, absurd, lyrically lovely late 20th-century reworking of “Howl” and it reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ ”Emperor of Ice Cream” – and a fully sung play. As music director Andrew Bisantz wrote in the program, “Nixon and his operatic entourage were not meant to be viewed as characters in a music-hall parody; rather, they were to be seen as historical and dramatic archetypes, as in the historical plays of Shakespeare and the operatic representations of ancient history by G.F. Handel.”

Also, I’m a believer in preparing for operas. The music isn’t usually super-duper complex in operas, but a. there’s a lot of it and b. I get very sleepy with music I don’t know well (I mean symphonic music & for that matter, chamber music – not pop/rock/alt so much, because, lyrics and short songs).

And it’s not as if Nixon in China has the advantage of its arias accompanying dramatic scenes in movies – because it’s newer (1987) and in English (that is, not mysterious), it’s not going to accompany a battle scene, or a romantic scene, the way many Italian opera arias do. OK, and it’s also because many people aren’t used to John Adams’ music. I overheard people saying “It was atonal!” or “It had no shape!” during/after the opera – I don’t agree with either analysis, but I understand that if they’re expecting Carmen, that’s not happening. I find Adams’ music plenty tonal – but that’s a whole big discussion I’m not musically qualified enough to have … others welcome to contribute here. If I think of tonality as the music having some central theme, then I can say I did enjoy hearing a theme from the first chorus repeat several times during the opera, the first time my ear has picked that out, probably because it was live and also Bisantz may have emphasized it a bit.

Anyway, I was prepared, particularly for the opening and for “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung,” which is an aria of surpassing weird/wonderfulness. That preparedness helps. Also, I’m patient with performances. I’ve only ever walked out on one performance in my life, a god-awful theatrical production that made me furious with its stupidity, so I guess I’m not one to leave after the first act of an opera (apparently, many people did – which is a shame, as the second act is fabulous).

Musical interlude: I’m listening to this version of “This is prophetic” and smiling as I write this – “Let Gypsy Rose kick off her party shoes … let businessmen speculate further … let the expression on the Statue of Liberty change just a little; let her see what lies inland.” Oh, Pat Nixon! The things you miss in this scene! Such brilliant writing by poet Alice Goodman.

But back to the Eugene Opera’s version, which took a united effort from a rather stunning number of people in and out of Eugene. First of all, the scrim. The gorgeously printed, monumental scrim – I assume designed by scenery designer Peter Beudert – and the light on Nixon (Lee Gregory, whom we’ve seen in Don Giovanni as Leporello and The Marriage of Figaro as Figaro) as he gets changed/dressed in the plane. Speaking of that plane, I’m not sure what happened – I was under the impression there was a plane, but that was from a conversation with Bisantz and opera executive director Mark Beudert before Carmen in December, so anything could have occurred. In this case, it was weird after seeing the Met’s version not to have a plane on stage, but that moment of disappointment went away quickly as Gregory distracted the audience with his smile and waving.

… and I just realized that what I want to do is relive the entire opera as I write this. Not useful, Suzi. FYI, if you want to see the full Houston Opera version from 1987, it’s available on YouTube – in 17 parts – starting here:

So some of my favorite things about this performance and the libretto/score in general:

  • Mark Beudert has a lovely voice! And he was good as Mao. Not even close to frail, the way the usual Mao is played. But I want Mark to sing more and exec less. Well, that’s not true; I think he (with others) has done a superhuman job making the Eugene Opera a going concern again.
  • Ben Goodman of the Eugene Ballet choreographed the piece and danced in the Revolutionary Ballet scene. I am so pleased to see Ben in yet another Eugene performing arts group. Also, he whipped that Eugene Opera chorus into doing tai chi and singing – that was amazing (and no, he didn’t actually use a whip … in the tai chi scene, anyway).
  • The second act, wow. I want to see that second act again and again. Kelly Kaduce, whom we (and the Portland Opera) have enjoyed onstage several times before, didn’t have a Pat Nixon-like wig the way all of the other Pats I’ve seen (on the screen) have, but she made Pat seem like a party-loving, not-too-bright, sweet – and put-upon – woman, and of course, as usual, I enjoyed her voice.

    In the Pat-on-tour scene, she charmed the audience with her ability to interact with the bicyclists, the children … and the pigs (I’m not kidding; that was fun, and as Mark Beudert said in his curtain speech, this was the first time the Eugene Opera had to thank Sweet Briar Farms “for livestock management”). And the juxtaposition of Pat’s wide-eyed attempts to connect to the workers with what they sing when the big elephant’s on the stage … wow. Killer libretto, Alice Goodman.

  • Then Laura Wayte made Chiang Ch’ing/Madame Mao such an impatient, annoyed, strong, intense personality in the ballet scene, not to mention her big “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung” moment.

    Why and how is this such a memorable/stunning/holyshitdidthatjusthappen aria? I don’t entirely know, but damn. The 2011 Met version:

  • The third act was a bit odd. It’s a different staging – as is the entire Eugene production, by (totally cute, not that I’m a strong judge of the men) stage director Sam Helfrich – than the Met’s staging, and I was at first waiting for the beds. Where were the beds? I mean, Peter Sellars talked about the beds being like coffins! I wanted the beds – nNot Kissinger (a befuddledly excellent Michael Gallup), Chou En-lai (Christopher Burchett, whom we’ve seen sing Masetto in Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro), Pat, Dick, Mao and Chiang Ch’ing in a post-party alcoholic funk at separate tables, slumped and out of it and lonely. Which was what we got. WHERE ARE THE COFFINS, SAM? was the thought bubble above my head.

    Then I snapped out of it. I liked this staging. Part of the excellence of the third act (though not all of my companions felt this way or enjoyed that bleakness, trailing off into despair/nothingness) comes from the distracted, isolated, separate, weird, overlapping parts of the libretto. Who’s talking? To whom? Why? Why are they retelling stories they’ve told over and over?

    Well, exactly.

  • I thought the orchestra performed well with this score. I know it’s a monster. When I said back there that usually operas don’t have super-duper complex music, I didn’t mean this opera. At least that’s the impression I got from some of the musicians, and from Bisantz when I briefly spoke to him at rehearsal. It wasn’t perfect, but they did well.
  • Some of the costumes (the secretaries, Pat, Dick, Henry, Mao) were gorgeous. Sometimes the chorus looked like it had simply brought clothes from home, but other times, it was a little more identical. I would have preferred a more similar look for all chorus members, all of the time.
  • Eugene Ballet! I think those dancers were all company members of yours? Well done. Nice collaboration (or just sharing?).
  • As some of you know, the opera just … ends. It’s not triumphal. It’s not big. It trails off. I loved that a lot … and then it took way too long to get the whole cast up there for curtain calls. Hey, if you’re not there in time, too bad. You don’t get to bow. (Unless you’re a principal, of course, in which case … yeah.)

I know some people didn’t like John Adams’ music. In addition, I heard that on Friday night, there was a lot of backstage noise – as in, things crashing around. I say that means not enough rehearsal time (as they are all too aware – and as I suspected, which was why I bought tickets for Sunday). I know that the chorus, though it did its best, occasionally looked sloppy and/or slapdash, even on Sunday. I know that a few scenes were awkwardly staged, at least with the chorus. (I also know that the people behind me and to the right needed to shut the hell up – “Honey, look! THAT’S PAT NIXON!” Yes. Thank you. Arglesmack.)

All of that is fair criticism. But overall, this was a moonshot for the Eugene Opera. Yes, like Nixon, I have to think of the Apollo astronauts .. ahem. Though it may not be reflected in ticket sales, the opera made it to the moon and back. I hope the board sucks it up, finds more sponsors and keeps on going because from this audience member’s point of view, it was well worth the effort.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Shamrock! Not that there is such a thing ... but anyway, the attribution is by greymalkn on Flickr, CC 2.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m the usual Midwestern (originally, now from the Pacific Northwest) white person – Irish and German, though there might be some English, Scottish, French and who knows what else in there before they immigrated to the U.S. in the 1840s and 1860s.

I grew up with one grandparent who emphasized the Irish Catholic side of the family, so we had St. Paddy’s Day with corned beef and cabbage, carrots, potatoes, soda bread, a cake with a shamrock on it (shamrocks aren’t a real plant, by the way) and little replica shillelaghs (shi-LAY-lee) all over my grandparents’ house. (I also learned to do some Irish dancing in my Catholic school girl uniform from the wonderful Sister Eileen at Notre Dame de Sion Lower School in Kansas City, but that’s long forgotten. Thankfully.)

I’m not Catholic anymore; I don’t eat meat (though I did find a motherlode of “vegan corned beef and cabbage” recipes today); and I don’t want a chocolate cake with green sprinkles making a shamrock on it. I don’t drink green beer or Guinness. I do listen to some Irish music though…

Why did so many Irish Catholics come to the U.S. (and Canada and Australia)? Here’s a kind of goofy Sinead O’Connor … um … rap – which pretty much answers that:

And I admit to loving “Kilkelly, Ireland” about what happened back home (I first heard it in 1991 in Estes Park, Colorado, when the group Colcannon played there – I like their version better, but I can’t find it online):

Here’s one of my fave Irish-in-the-U.S. Pogues songs, in a rather weird YouTube form:

And randomly, a couple of my fave recent Irish books:
Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer
Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn

With the exception of Paula Spencer, occurs to me that everything I’ve linked is pretty sad. But the Irish have a good sense of humor, and I’m personally pleased that my long-ago family immigrated, and that I do not live in a place where the Church still has way too much power. Plus, hey, we wouldn’t have so many sad and sentimental and frankly boozy songs and books and movies (well, the movies tend to be a bit more grim) without that immigration.

All of that said, the original point of this post was that I love it when the Muppets sing “Danny Boy.”

I bet you do too.

Ballet Fantastique Wants to Kick(start) Its Wild West Way to Italy

Krislyn Wessel, Justin Feimster and Adam Haaga (all part of the Italy cast) in "The Tale of Zummurud" from Arabian Nights in January 2012. Photo by Jackson Hager, Vanguard Media

What do you do when Italy calls – but you don’t have a lot of money to fly there?

If you’re scrappy Eugene “chamber ballet” group Ballet Fantastique, you get to work on your funding. Guest dancer Alberto Liberatoscioli hails from San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, where his mother directs a ballet school (though now he’s with Ballet Nebraska).

He played Lando (that is, Orlando) in the spring 2011 Ballet Fantastique production of As You Like It: A Wild West Ballet. According toBFan executive director Hannah Bontrager, he pitched the idea of taking As You Like It home with him to San Benedetto’s ministry of culture, which had for some time been wanting a U.S. company with Liberatoscioli to come present a ballet there. “Alberto showed them our DVD and our programs and photos,” Bontrager says. The minister was so impressed that the town’s ready to pay for the theatre, their production costs and their lodging.

Bontrager says, “It’s always been a dream of ours, like many ballet companies, to perform internationally.” And like any ballet company, Ballet Fantastique puts a lot of effort into creating each new show, Bontrager says. “To perform it just a few times is always sad for the dancers – and for my mom and me as choreographers and producers.” So heading to San Benedetto holds some serious appeal.

Ashley Bontrager as Annie Oakley, one of the added characters, in As You Like It: A Wild West Ballet in April 2011. Photo by Gregory Burns

Now all Ballet Fantastique has to do is come up with airfare for the 10 artists and their choreographer, BFan artistic director (and Hannah’s mother) Donna Bontrager. Since last summer, the group has been doing everything from a car wash to galas to other fundraising activities in order to get the money together.

“We’re happy with any contribution,” Bontrager said. Company dancer Leanne Mizzoniwas surprised and touched when one of her 7-year-old students brought her a handful of change one day and said, “It’s for the Italy fund, Miss Leanne!”

The latest – and most urgent – effort is the $4000 Kickstarter campaign. On the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, you can keep any extra money you raise over your goal, but if you don’t meet that goal, you get none of the money. And the Ballet Fantastique deadline is March 26. As of this writing moment, they’ve got 45 backers and about $3300 pledged – which is still far enough away from the goal that Bontrager admits to some nervousness. “We have our pie chart in the studio, and we’re sort of whittling,” she says.

The company recently concluded a sold-out Arabian Nights, the first time they created a full-length dramatic ballet, and the first time a show sold out before the day of the show. That probably bodes well for the company’s application to become a resident company at the Hult Center (they’re in the middle year of the three-year process). But the dancers and choreographers didn’t rest on their laurels.

“As as soon as we finished Arabian Nights, we resurrected last fall’s Incendio,” Bontrager says – because they’re going on the road, but this time just I-5 to Everett, Washington, where they’ll present Incendio. At the same time, she says, “we’re working on Cinderella: A Rock Opera Ballet, which is going to be one of the most collaborative things we’ve ever done.”

Amelia Unsicker prepares for Cinderella: A Rock Opera Ballet (May 12-13, 2012, at the Hult). Photo: Jared Mills, Woden Photography

So the dancers and choreographers are dealing with several shows at once. It’s not as if the dancers have time to focus solely on BFan rehearsals. Most of them have three or four jobs aside from Ballet Fantastique, where many also teach classes during the day when they’re not rehearsing.

“For us, it really is a labor of love for everybody involved,” Bontrager says. The company would love to raise enough money get to Italy for the planned July performance. “Every dollar really does make a difference to us. We’ve had a few people who have pledged $2 or $10. We have that shoestring mentality, and we’re proud of it. We do a lot with a little.”

What Should I Do This Weekend in Eugene? Top Picks!

Michael P. Watkins as Lawrence Jameson and Tom Wilson as Freddy Benson, the two con men. Photo by Rich Scheeland

What should you, arts loving person, do this weekend? My recs, in a vague order:

1. Nixon in China at the Eugene Opera. Two performances: tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Hult Center. Tix here or at the box office (some are quite reasonably priced – and hint, if you scan the QR code on the opera’s poster and use the coupon code to get tickets, they’re even cheaper. Yes, I did that). I wrote about original opera idea guy Peter Sellars and soprano Laura Decher Wayte earlier in the week, and here’s Bob Keefer’s story from the Register-Guard.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Very Little Theatre. Tix at 541-344-7751 or at the door, if there are any left – this one is totally selling out, people. Get your tix for next weekend maybe?

3.  The Crucible at the University Theatre – tix here or at the door (free if you’re a student with a student ID starting at 7 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night). Last two shows!

4. Fahrenheit 451 at the Lord Leebrick – tix here or at 541-465-1506, if there are any left.

5. Pina in 3D at Valley River Center 15 – yes, it’s coming to the Bijou, and I swear this will be the only time I pick a disgusting mall over the sweet little Bije, which I freaking adore …  but it’s not in 3D at the Bijou (fingers crossed that this will happen someday). Both director Wim Wenders (swoon for Wenders!) and critics near and far have said the 3D is FANTASTIC for dance movies. (I am also not a big fan of 3D – I think it’s a gimmick, for the most part – but in this case, DANCE. 3D. Yes.)

Author Chris Crutcher Came to the Eugene Public Library, And All I Got Was A Lot Of Tears And Laughter

Chris Crutcher opens his March 10, 2012, talk at the Eugene Public Library with a joke. Photo by Suzi Steffen

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed young adult lit author Chris Crutcher for the Literary Duck – link here, and it was a delightful interview, so you should go read it & then come back – and on Saturday, March 10, he spoke at the Eugene Public LIbrary for one of their programs during the Big Read (there’s one big event left – Ursula Le Guin is coming to Eugene on March 24th! Hurrah!).

I live-tweeted a fair amount of the talk – I had to leave a few minutes before the end – and thought I’d get up a record at least of the tweets, with a little information in between the tweets

Crutcher was in town for a few days before the talk, going around and speaking to teens in Eugene and maybe Springfield? I don’t know the details, but here’s YA librarian Traci Glass’ tweet about that:

Crutcher started off thanking the hosts of his trip and saying that he’d had a great few days talking to people and eating good food. Then he said that when he was young, his dad thought he was kind of lazy:

Then Chris told us what kind of a high school student he was – not a star, to put it mildly. But not a screwup either.

He wasn’t a reader, and he didn’t want to be a reader. Didn’t want to read the books for high school.

(This status came later, but it fits here:)

That story: He told about how he became a writer, and how he modeled the football coach in his first book somewhat after the football coach at his high school in Cascade, Idaho. He went to read in Cascade’s high school library, and he said one boy said to him, “Is this a real book? LIke, can you get it?” When the boy believed that it was a real book, he turned to the librarian and said, “How many people who went to this high school have written books?” and the librarian said, well, just Chris. And then the kid asked, “Well, why don’t we have it in the library, then?”

Crutcher: “And that was how I learned that the book was banned in my own high school library.”

Then Crutcher talked about his work as a child abuse therapist and how he doesn’t take any one kid’s specific story to create his own work:

Then Crutcher read (on his iPad, which he called “just about the coolest little thing in the world”) from his book Deadline.

This was a short reading, and it sounded pretty good. I have read many of Crutcher’s books, but not Deadline, so it might be time to pick it up (especially as I just read John Green‘s  The Fault in Our Stars, which made me cry continuously, with short burst of sobbing, for about the final hundred pages and occasional moments before as well, and was lovely but not half as funny as Crutcher’s writing).

He proceeded to tell us a story about part of where this book – about a kid who’s dying of cancer, and how the kid deals with saying goodbye to everyone – came from:

Then he told a super sad story about a 5-year-old from his experience as a family/child abuse therapist. How sad was it?

And this is one of the reasons Crutcher doesn’t like the banning or the censorship – every topic needs to be open for discussion in order for people to have a chance of connecting and healing.

And some wise words:

And finally, just before I left:

Laura Decher Wayte on Singing Madame Mao for the Eugene Opera’s ‘Nixon in China’

Laura Decher Wayte, soprano, who sings Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) in Nixon in China March 16 & 18 in Eugene, Oregon

Laura Decher Wayte is a soprano who lives in Eugene. She teaches at the UO’s School of Music, and she performs in recital and occasionally in operas, including the Eugene Opera’s Don Giovanni and this week’s Nixon in China.

I ran into her at rehearsal the other day and did a phone interview with her today.

Suzi Steffen: So what are your thoughts about presenting Nixon in China in Eugene?

Laura Decher Wayte: I’m more and more excited about it, in terms of the whole project. When I first heard we were going to do it, I was excited to do my part, but I thought the piece itself … well, I wondered if it would be OK for Eugene. I think more and more that it is an excellent choice.

And how did that change? Why?
I can see that as a company, we can handle it. It was lovely to have all the build-up through the university to bring more community members into the idea of it so it becomes interesting to more than to your traditional group of opera aficionados.

Madame Mao is an … interesting … character. How do you play this woman? What kind of research did you do?

I did read about a third of the biography written by Roxane Witca, who came to give a lecture, and while that was fascinating, it doesn’t necessarily inform the part because [Jiang Qing] isn’t an historically based part in its emotional details.

What we have to do as singers is use the score and text a lot in a nonhistorical way. We have to think of it as its own document that has its own goal of portraying the confusion of being in power [when you’re] a human being.

Let’s talk about what she’s feeling during the opera, and what she’s feeling during the famous aria ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung’.

At any given moment in the opera, it’s obvious she’s either frustrated or feeling rejected or depressed by her history or the inflexibility of the people around her to do what she says. It’s easy to portray those kind of blanket emotions; I don’t find that challenging. What’s hard to do is to tie it together to make sense. But there’s a gift in this opera; it’s supposed to be a more impression of things, it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense.

What would you say to people who have a hard time with the story arc? I mean, in that it’s not a traditional opera story, with a Romantic arc or even much of a narrative arc?

Well, what I would say is they shouldn’t think of it as a story that’s supposed to parallel history but that it’s more of a fictionalized history. We’re using the structure of history to examine ourselves as humans, not to examine a particular moment in history. It’s no about would Mao have ever said that in real life – those kinds of questions I don’t find interesting. It’s more about the rhythms of humanity, the ways we expand and contract our societies.

How well should people know the opera before they come?

The thing I think that’s hard about this piece is that it’s so textually dense, and the librettist does not give away the meaning behind what she’s written very easily. No matter how much you know it, you’re going to get different levels of something from it. If you go to it with this being your only exposure, you will let go of struggling for plot and listen to the way the music manipulates us, the way the text makes us have thoughts that are not a linear story.

You allow your brain to let go and enjoy what happens because of what it’s being exposed to. But if you can prepare for it, whatever you do is going to help. There’s a lot of little references in the text to history, to different characters in history, but if you don’t know them, there’s still plenty.

I compare it to, I used to read a lot of Shakespeare, and at first it was work. I’d have to grab out a dictionary to figure out what was happening. Then I decided, I’m just going to read – and it became fun at a totally different level.

Because you’re relaxed?

Yes, because you’re relaxed.

What have you heard people in the community saying about Nixon in China?

I’ve heard lots of people say they’re interested in coming. I think it’s worthy of commenting on that I’ve heard more people say they’re interested in coming than in the other work I’ve been involved in with this company for. It’s new, it’s different, it’s not just Don Giovanni again – Don Giovanni, it’s a great thing; my dad would see Don Giovanni 50 times, but … [We both made noises of assent, and that was that.]

How do you feel about singing in English?

I love it; I absolutely love it. I love singing in the other languages as well, especially the ones I know, but I’ve lately been feeling frustration with having a language barrier between my work and what my audience can hear of the work I’ve done. I love that I can put all kinds of meaning into a word and somebody can actually get it. With German and French, I do all of this work, and I have so much relationship with the text, and I feel frustrated because nobody’s getting a portion of what I’m putting into it.

And on that note, do you think people will read the supertitles less and pay attention to the stage?

We had breakfast with Peter Sellars last week. He was saying that when he was younger, before there were supertitles, he would go to a foreign opera and let go of comprehension and be affected by the music, and he really misses that.

Do you think Nixon in China is a complex work, or does it feel that way just because it’s newer, and maybe we don’t know the music as well?

I’ve been asked that a lot. My answer has been that the music is that hard; it’s not that complex – I can learn any page easily. But the problem comes when you have to put it together. There’s the lack of an overarching structure to any moment. There’s not a coda, for instance. It doesn’t have all these labels we have for the way music feels and flows – that is gone. We all were looking forward to being staged because that would give us structure and put the structure into our bodies and into our brains where it didn’t exist musically.

Peter Sellars Talks ‘Nixon in China’ in Eugene

The Eugene Opera and the University of Oregon have spent quite a lot of time collaborating on events surrounding the Opera’s presentation of Nixon in China – this weekend, Friday night and Sunday matinee, at the Hult Center, tix here – and I was lucky enough to go hear original Nixon conceiver and famous opera/theatre director Peter Sellars when he came on March 8 to talk with the executive director of the UO’s Confucius Institute at the School of Music and Dance’s gorgeous Beall Hall. Thursday was possibly the most gorgeous day Eugene will see until July, so many people with Sellars plans hung out outside, waiting for the doors to Beall to open.

Peter Sellars and Bryna Goodman at Beall Hall, 03/08/12



After we got in to Beall and the program started, I recorded for a while. I was far away – you’ll have to turn this way up to hear him, but I think it’s pretty much worth it.

A few highlights from the recording:

  • Opera is a participatory art form “that everyone helps to shape”
  • Sellars had been working on Giulio Cesare in Egitto when he titled this opera. “Handel’s opera is Julius Caesar in Egypt, so, duh, Nixon in China, right?”
  • “I had to do a bunch of research, and so there I had the Kissinger memoirs, you know, a difficult book, just a monstrous, thick, oleaginous mass of self-aggrandizement. I was reading these things, and couldn’t believe I had the strength to turn each new page, and I said, ‘Something has to come out of this.'”
  • “Of course, my generation critiqued a lot of that [older Western] culture, so we wanted to make Nixon in China something intelligent, unlike French opera.”
  • “The opera isn’t about China, but about the fact that China … is part of American life, part of American history, and that our futures are linked.”
  •  “What I love about the opera is that you know where you are at the beginning, and you don’t know where you are at the end. And to me, that’s what a great work of art should do.”
  • This isn’t music that just goes into your mind; it goes into your body. It has a pulse. The rhythm is irresistible, and the tune is catchy, and all of that is happening at the same time that John [Adams] is painting really delicate, subtle psychological pictures of weather conditions, detente, and very fragile feelings of a sunset on a winter day that you would get in a Chinese poem from the Sung Dynasty.”
  • Opera is an art form feast. It’s rich in layers; it’s rich in textures; it’s rich in meaning, and history is this rich, rich, layered, richly textured experience that’s ongoing. … The opera is way richer now than when we wrote it, and it has way more meaning now than it did then.”
  • “California in 1859 was black cowboys, slaves who came west on horses, and Chinese people. That’s the birth of California.” (Er, and the Californios who were already there … but that’s a different story.)
  • “For me, the future of culture in America is going to be Chinese opera.”

After a while, I couldn’t kill my phone battery that way anymore, so I turned off the recording and started live-tweeting instead, as follows (with one other person’s tweets as well):

By that, I’m pretty sure he meant, “Many people wondered what in the world the EUGENE OPERA was doing, taking on such a complicated project, but now that it’s happening, the Opera’s going to keep on pushing itself even more.” Which is true – see the Q&A with Laura Decher Wayte for more on that.

This one I had to shorten obnoxiously in order to fit in the hashtag, dang the luck:

I believe Sellars talked for about five minutes after I left (I thought it was over, but the woman holding the microphone asked one last question). Yay, UO and Eugene Opera and Peter Sellars! That was fascinating.