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