Nixon in Toronto


I saw Nixon in China last week (not the Met’s production, but the Canadian Opera Company’s impressive presentation, which is currently on stage in Toronto), and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s the kind of piece that stays with you for a while.

One thing that strikes me about this opera is that it puts the music first. Adams’ musical style (love it or hate it) is so strong, confident and in-your-face, that Nixon feels like an opera, not a play set to music. In this way, it reminds me of Fidelio, Pelléas et Mélisande, or Wozzeck: the story is used as a framework for a musical-aesthetic statement.

In Hollywood, the practice of writing film music that’s closely tied to what’s happening on the screen – imitating every detail of the action – is called "Mickey-Mousing." You know what I’m talking about: if someone is quietly tiptoeing up a staircase, the accompanying music will be an ascending chromatic scale, played pizzicato by the strings. It’s a deliberately subservient approach to composing, and the result is music that’s intended not to draw much attention to itself.

I’ve seen too many contemporary operas that rely too heavily on Mickey-Mouse thinking. Either the composer is too devoted to the libretto – and to the idea that it's the composer’s job to "collaborate" with the librettist – or the composer simply doesn’t have a strong musical statement to make. It seems that opera has become an appealing medium for magpie-composers who may have a very broad knowledge of music, and who wear their catholic tastes as a badge of honour, but who lack firm stylistic convictions. (Or perhaps they watched too many cartoons when they were kids.) It sort of works for opera – but try writing a symphony that way!

However, in Nixon in China (and Adams’ other operas), the music doesn’t "accompany" the opera – the music is the opera. That’s why it impresses me, and why I’m still thinking about it a week later.