Back in 1987, a workshop presentation of “Nixon in China” at The City’s Herbst Theatre was astonishing.
Even in an unstaged, work-in-progress form, librettist Alice Goodman and Berkeley composer John Adams’ opera — the first of Adams’ “CNN operas” dealing with contemporary world events — boasted innovation, both in style and subject.
After a quarter century, and on the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s trip to China, the opera is moving to the War Memorial Opera House, adjacent to Herbst, for its long-anticipated local premiere Friday.
Adams says “Nixon” — as well as “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic” — deal with American mythology on deep psychological levels; he calls the 1972 meeting of Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong “a mythological moment in world history, particularly American history.”
Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, making his local debut with the San Francisco Opera production, emphasizes that “Nixon in China” is more than a playback of history.
He says, “The production has a documentary aspect, but it goes beyond that. As the piece progresses, moments of reality versus surreality increase. From being highly realistic at first, the opera takes the window we look through and smashes it into fragments. ... ‘Nixon’ has poetry as well as the facts. It shows how huge events transform us.”
For San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, this weekend’s premiere — with Brian Mulligan in the title role, Simon O’Neill as Mao and Patrick Carfizzi as Henry Kissinger — represents coming full-circle. Under his direction at Houston Grand Opera some 25 years ago, “Nixon in China” had its world premiere before going on to international acclaim, including a Metropolitan Opera production that was telecast globally.
The cast also includes Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-lai and 2010 Merola Program participant Hye Jung Lee in the show-stopping role of Mao’s wife.