She’s hot, she’s dead, she’s an OPERA STAR

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY ANNE MID­GETTE

Nixon and, yes, Anna Ni­cole ( so out­ra­geous!) help keep the docu-opera “fad” afloat

This month, Richard Nixon will be sing­ing on the stage of the Metropoli­tan Opera; Anna Ni­cole Smith will be sing­ing at the Royal Opera House at Covent Gar­den; and Al­berto Gon­za­les will be sing­ing in Bal­ti­more.

They all ap­pear as char­ac­ters in doc­u­men­tary op­eras, a genre that has been var­i­ously hailed as an in­spi­ra­tion, a gim­mick, a fad, and on the way out. But what­ever it is, I sub­mit that it’s alive, well and here to stay. John Adams’s opera “ Nixon in China” has cer­tainly en­dured: It’s hav­ing a rather be­lated pre­miere at the Metropoli­tan Opera on Feb. 2, some 24 years af­ter it was first per­formed in Hous­ton. (It will be broad­cast live in movie the­aters on Feb. 12.) This opera is widely thought of as hav­ing sparked the genre that was al­most im­me­di­ately chris­tened “docu-opera” in the press: op­eras about real, con­tem­po­rary fig­ures.

Since then, there has been a long list of works based on the liv­ing or re­cently dead, among them “X” (about Mal­colm X, from 1986), “Har­vey Milk” (1995), “Jackie O” (1997), and two oth­ers by Adams — “ Doc­tor

Atomic” (2005), about the cre­ation of the A-bomb, and “ The Death of Kling hoffer” (1991), based on the hi­jack­ing of the Achille Lauro.

The new­est ad­di­tion to the canon (such as it is) will be “Anna Ni­cole,” the in­evitable Anna Ni­cole Smith opera, which opens in London on Feb. 17 and is likely to be less eye-rolling than you

might think: The score is by the very ca­pa­ble com­poser Mark-An­thony Tur­nage, whose flair for the provoca­tive is matched by solid crafts­man­ship. An­other re­cent en­try, “The Gon­za­les Can­tata,” with an all-fe­male cast and a li­bretto based on the con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony of for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral Al­berto Gon­za­les, is get­ting its first fully staged pro­duc­tion by Amer­i­can Opera Theater in Bal­ti­more Feb. 4-13. A gim­mick? Sure, to a point. “ The fact of it be­ing a docu-opera, more than any­thing else, helps you sell tick­ets,” says Tim Nel­son, AOT’s founder. “It helps to at­tract new au­di­ences, which is a good thing, a valid thing.” Plus, he adds, “ there’s the value of hav­ing the au­di­ence un­der­stand the char­ac­ters be­fore the over­ture starts.”

Which isn’t true, he points out, of any of the mytho­log­i­cal or his­tor­i­cal sub­jects that used to be opera’s pre­ferred sub­ject mat­ter. The tabloids, for bet­ter or worse, are our cur­rent cul­tural touch­stone.

It’s a fal­lacy to think that this is new. But for some rea­son, the idea that opera can be top­i­cal has car­ried with it a whiff of provo­ca­tion, even tit­il­la­tion, since the ear­li­est days of the genre, when thinly dis­guised mytho­log­i­cal nar­ra­tives re­fer­ring to con­tem­po­rary rulers were a stan­dard fea­ture of ev­ery self-re­spect­ing state cel­e­bra­tion (par­tic­u­larly wed­dings and coro­na­tions).

In Verdi’s day, the thought of see­ing con­tem­po­rary life on­stage was so shock­ing that “La Travi­ata” had to be set in the 18th cen­tury for its pre­miere; cen­sors were so hy­per­sen­si­tive to any whiff of po­lit­i­cal in­nu­endo that most ref­er­ences to kings were ex­cised, which is why the ruler in “Rigo­letto” be­came a duke and the tenor lead in “Un Ballo in Maschera” had to be changed from king of Swe­den to gover­nor of Bos­ton.

Over time, we’ve moved from fa­nat­i­cally sniff­ing out hints of con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance to wring­ing our hands when such rel­e­vance ap­pears on­stage. In 1987, the very idea of Nixon sing­ing on­stage was seen as shal­low and un­wor­thy of the genre. Yet it isn’t shock­ing when Nixon is the sub­ject of an Oliver Stone biopic, or ap­pears on Broad­way in the play “Frost/ Nixon” (later filmed). Opera is sup­posed to be, some­how, on an­other plane, more ex­alted and last­ing than mere pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment.

Never mind that opera was in­deed pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment for most of its ex­is­tence: Back in the 19th cen­tury, a best-sell­ing book or play wasn’t made into a Hollywood film but went straight to the opera stage, to en­dure to­day as a work of high art.

One rea­son this mis­ap­pre­hen­sion has evolved is opera’s larger-than-life as­pect: The genre tends to mythol­o­gize ev­ery­thing it touches. His­tor­i­cal fig­ures (Anne Bo­leyn in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”) and cour­te­sans ( Vi­o­letta in “La Travi­ata”) be­come tragic hero­ines, and even pu­ta­tive vil­lains ac­quire a sym­pa­thetic side when ac­com­pa­nied by great mu­sic (wit­ness King Philip in “Don Carlo,” or Boris in “Boris Go­dunov”).

In­deed, the ad­jec­tive “op­er­atic” has come to de­note ex­actly this larger-thanlife qual­ity: some­thing with high drama and large emo­tions. If you’re go­ing to burst into song on­stage, the rea­son­ing seems to go, then you’d bet­ter have some­thing big to sing about.

Yet an op­er­atic life does not nec­es­sar­ily make a suc­cess­ful opera. Too many docu­op­eras, par­tic­u­larly those of the biopic va­ri­ety, have sat­is­fied them­selves with sim­ply thrust­ing big lives on­stage, set­ting them to mu­sic and as­sum­ing that they’ll fly. Many of these op­eras can hardly strug­gle out from the weight of their own ex­pec­ta­tions. (If the Os­car-win­ning film “Milk” worked bet­ter than Ste­wart Wal­lace’s opera, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily opera’s fault.)

Iron­i­cally, John Adams’s op­eras, how­ever sub­ver­sive they seem, sub­scribe to this same mythol­o­giz­ing. “Doc­tor Atomic” is a weighty cre­ation myth gone awry (plot sum­mary/spoiler: Op­pen­heimer cre­ates bomb, peo­ple sing). “Nixon in China” is a lot more play­ful and provoca­tive, but it has in­evitably changed over time; to­day, most of its real-life pro­tag­o­nists are dead, and its story line threat­ens to be taken as his­tory rather than anti-his­tory.

“Nixon in China,” as AOT’s Nel­son points out, “ has noth­ing to do with the facts of Nixon’s visit to China.” The point was not to make an opera about the for­mer pres­i­dent. Rather, Nel­son opines, “It’s about peo­ple who re­al­ize at the end of their prime time that they failed, that they didn’t ac­com­plish what they set out to do.”

To­day, some com­posers are mov­ing to­ward lit­eral doc­u­men­taries rather than cre­at­ing a li­bretto based more or less loosely on the facts. “ The Gon­za­les Can­tata,” writ­ten in 2008, sets con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony to mu­sic. Ted Hearne’s “Ka­t­rina Bal­lads,” re­leased last year as a CD, is based on tran­scripts, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and tele­vi­sion clips re­lat­ing to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina; An­der­son Cooper and Ge­orge W. Bush are among its real-life au­thors.

The ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing here is in the mu­sic, which casts the words in a new light. One of Hearne’s arias sim­ply re­peats Bush’s in­fe­lic­i­tous state­ment, “Brownie, you’re do­ing a heck of a job.” And com­poser Melissa Dun­phy, who wrote “ The Gon­za­les Can­tata” while she was still an un­der­grad­u­ate, has set Gon­za­les’s tran­scripts to a quasi-Han­delian score, switched gen­ders so that all the male char­ac­ters (in­clud­ing Gon­za­les) are sung by women, and cre­ated a show­piece aria out of Gon­za­les’s re­peated state­ment “I don’t re­call.” Sung words, which can sound heroic, in­stead be­come the stuff of par­ody.

Both of these works aimed more at po­lit­i­cal state­ment than dra­matic ef­fect. Nei­ther was con­ceived as a stage work per se; Dun­phy said she was taken aback when Nel­son ap­proached her about putting on her piece as an opera.

And yet, though the words are lit­er­ally Gon­za­les’s, what emerges is a far more sym­pa­thetic portrayal than Dun­phy may orig­i­nally have in­tended. The com­poser said she ended up car­ing con­sid­er­ably about the char­ac­ter she had cre­ated.

“I had some peo­ple on the left,” she said, “get an­noyed with me for hu­man­iz­ing, hav­ing sym­pa­thy with Al­berto Gon­za­les.”

“I love this Gon­za­les,” Nel­son says. “I don’t think he has any­thing in com­mon with [the real] Al­berto Gon­za­les.”

Moral: When you take on real events, you may not end up mak­ing the state­ment you think you are. A work of art cre­ates its own grav­i­ta­tional pull in cre­at­ing a meta-re­al­ity. “Nixon in China” and “ The Gon­za­les Can­tata” have cre­ated kinder, gen­tler, more uni­ver­sal ver­sions of the char­ac­ters they set out to skewer.

This ad­di­tional layer of com­plex­ity is, how­ever, un­likely to change the minds of any­one who views this kind of mu­sic theater as sim­ply a fad­dish at­tempt at pop­u­lar­iza­tion. The me­dia at­ten­tion lav­ished on such projects sup­ports the view of naysay­ers that their whole point is sim­ply to get at­ten­tion: Dun­phy was fea­tured ev­ery­where from the Wall Street Jour­nal to the “Rachel Mad­dow Show” when “ The Gon­za­les Can­tata” was per­formed in 2009. Knives are al­ready be­ing sharp­ened for “Anna Ni­cole,” whose li­bret­tist, Richard Thomas, was a cre­ator of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” in 2003.

Pop­u­lar­ize away, say I. And if opera can trans­form Anna Ni­cole Smith into a Vi­o­letta for the 21st cen­tury, let it. Opera has been desperately seek­ing con­tem­po­rary sub­ject mat­ter for the last few decades, pre­cisely be­cause it feels cor­doned off from the pop­u­lar sub­jects it used to deal with as a mat­ter of course. The prob­lem lies not in docu-opera, but in see­ing docu­opera as some­thing fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from the na­ture of opera it­self.

ANNA NI­COLE SMITH BY SGRANITZ/WIREI­MAGE

JIM CALD­WELL/ALASTAIR MUIR

AN OP­ER­ATIC LIFE: RichardMad­dalena, right, as Richard Nixon and San­ford Sylvan, cen­ter, as Zhou En­lai per­formed at the Kennedy Cen­ter in 1988 in the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion of John Adams’s docu-opera “Nixon in China.”

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