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Duck

Stuttgart Opera, Spring Festival 2019

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Two fascinating events with Stuttgart Opera last weekend as part of the Opera's current Spring Festival, a “Long Night of Minimal Music” on Saturday evening, and an Insight Event on Sunday morning into the forthcoming Stuttgart premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China.

Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music kicked off the Long Night of Minimal Music. This wasn’t a sound that I’d choose to listen to on the radio but it was mesmerising to watch. Five microphones were hanging down from a structure and were moving above amplifiers on the floor, initially all with the same backwards/ forwards movement, and yet they all developed different movement patterns, until all movements came to a halt directly above the amplifiers. The tone emitted through each of the combinations of amplifiers and microphones changed along with the various movement patterns, and so a melody of eerie sounds arose, shifted and finally converged into a single note, akin to the tone emitted by TV stations at night after the programme had finished when I was younger. I was spellbound.

Steve Reich’s Piano Phase was given as video screening with extracts from Fase by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker. The changes in movements of two female dancers – arm swinging, simple turns, and simple steps – followed the changes in phases in Reich’s work. Whereas the two dancers started in synchronous mode next to each other, after a while, one of them increased the speed of her movements just ever so slightly, and after a few more repetitions, her movements were now the exact mirror image of that of her colleague. After a while, they went back into parallel mode, … and so on. Wow, this will have involved endless counting and superb concentration and stamina by the two dancers. Plus the music was great, too.

Ryoanji by John Cage was created by drawing lines along small stones that had been placed on paper in random fashion. The lines drawn became the notes that four singers would sing. These were standing, walking and sitting in the midst of the audience. Thus observing the performers also merged into observing the reactions of other members of the audience, including some listening with their eyes closed, some smiling.

Workers Union by Louis Andriessen and In C by Terry Riley represented the “Classics” amongst minimal music (that's how the programme booklet called it). I really enjoyed these two works, I found them quite cinematic, and the rhythms reminded me of trains running or working machinery. There was lots and lots of enthusiastic applause for the performers of these two works.

Back to Steve Reich with Mallet Quartet, displaying different moods, from calming and melodious to pulsating. The final piece that I attended was White Man Sleeps by Kevin Volans, at times resembling courtly dances, and playing with expectations as to when the piece might end as the composition included pauses and passages where the music was barely audible, before it then continued for another while. Again lots of enthusiastic applause for the performers of these two works.

I absolutely loved the programme and hope there’ll be more minimal music in Stuttgart in forthcoming seasons. I guess the constant lookout for patterns, loops and phases influenced the way I was listening to the works, it felt pretty intense and involved … and very good.

The programme went on thereafter & until 2 am on Sunday morning, yet I left at this point as I was keen to attend the Insight Event on Sunday morning for John Adam’s Nixon in China which will have its Stuttgart premiere this coming Sunday.

A superb event, giving a good insight into the structure and key themes of the work, the main roles and the music, plus it included three solos performed live. The performers all sang and acted full out, as if they were on stage rather than in an introductory talk in a foyer of the Opera House, but the one that really hit me with its supreme intensity was Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod’s performance of a solo for Mao’s wife. The very moment she stepped onto a small pedestal (where those debating the work were sitting so the audience could see them more easily), her body language, her facial expression, everything was completely and utterly transformed within just that split second, and she simply was the person she plays in Adam’s work. It was only when tears were running down my face when I realised how much her performance moved me. Wow, I can’t wait until the opening night on Sunday.

NB The performance of Nixon in China on 11 May will be livestreamed – see https://www.staatsoper-stuttgart.de/service/live/ for more details & other livestreams this season, and google translate https://translate.google.de/translate?hl=&sl=de&tl=en&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.staatsoper-stuttgart.de%2Fservice%2Flive%2F&sandbox=1

 

Edited by Duck
typo lot/ lots
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Many thanks Duck - I’ll look forward to reading what you make of Sunday’s performance and hopefully seeing the live stream given what you’ve already said.

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A fabulous evening albeit a long one, 3 ½ hours including intervals and prior to curtain calls. The applause was pretty long & loud already following curtain down at the end of acts 1 and 2, and it was tumultuous at the end, including what I think was some foot stamping. I left after the first ten minutes of ovations (for the soloists, the choir, the orchestra, the production team … everyone) as I needed to catch a train home, this being a Sunday evening before getting up for work on a Monday morning.

I watch opera only from time to time and hadn’t seen Nixon in China previously. It was the link to historical events and equally the notion of creating images/ perceived reality through media that attracted me to this work, and the prospect of listening to music by John Adams was a bonus. In fact the motto of this year’s spring festival is “really real” in the sense of “what is real?” vs “what is (only) considered to be real?”

Difficult to highlight a particular aspect, I rather think it came together as one, this is why I enjoyed it so much (spoiler alert … please stop reading here if you prefer to be surprised by what you’ll see on the 11th May :-)

  • Fabulous soloists in their specific roles e.g., Michael Mayes (Nixon) with an incredible voice, loud, intense, depicting Nixon as someone from somewhere in the countryside, Matthias Klink’s (Mao) body language - walking in small steps, his upper body bent forward slightly. Powerful choir, in act 1 appearing & singing repeatedly in what would be the Stalls Circle and the Balcony at the ROH (I don’t know how they will capture this for the live stream)

  • Loved the colour scheme of the costumes – black suits for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, stunning dresses in black/blue respectively gold for Pat Nixon, a white suit for Mao, icy grey & silver for Chiang Ch’ing (her costume and her spikey headpiece alone inspired fear), shades of grey for Mao’s secretaries, the choir in grey and silver for the women and a little touch of gold for the men, the pioneers (if that’s the correct word?) in light grey, red for Chinese flags and what I think was meant to be Mao’s bible (of which there were lots of)

  • A flexible stage design that allowed the seamless flow between scenes within each act. Nixon’s landing in China is shown through strips of light that are illuminated as if it was a runway, and Nixon is lowered down onto the stage from above. The metal structure that is used for the landing is transformed into a wall that is put together by pioneers and that shows a group of them exploring new ground/ territory (on the moon?). Wooden benches are used to portray gatherings in acts 1 and 3 (yet the banquet in act 1 scene 3 is done standing).

The depiction of events in the ballet/opera created by Chiang Ch’ing in act 2 scene 2 is intensely grim, I wasn’t able to watch all of this. This is also where the layers of events in Adams’ work become intertwined as and when the Nixons and Henry Kissinger become involved in the piece (cf. what is real?).

Act 3 has the orchestra pit removed (the music is now recorded I understand), and so the stage goes all the way to row 1, creating an incredible proximity between the audience and the performers on stage. The contrast in atmosphere to act 1 couldn’t be starker. Whereas act 1 is all about formality of interaction (which however doesn’t lead to much as Richard Nixon spends a lot of time thinking about the image that he’d create for the audience back home and Mao spends time talking about philosophy), act 2 shows Pat and Richard Nixon increasingly lost and with a deepening sense of unease, and now act 3 is all about looking back at one’s life and events therein, isolated, separated, disillusioned, all sense of achievement is gone. Chou En-lai’s words at the very end of the Opera summarise this atmosphere through the words “How much of what we did was good?”

If you watch the livestream on 11th May (I hope it’ll be accessible from the UK), it’d be great to hear what you think about the production and the performance. If you have a chance to head to Stuttgart instead, tickets are still available for all forthcoming performances.

 

Videos and pictures provided by Stuttgart Opera

Teaser and pictures on the production page https://www.staatsoper-stuttgart.de/spielplan/a-z/nixon-in-china/

Trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O00yP5V_yso

 

A number of newspaper articles (providing the links to google translate would be too long for all of these, so I am just linking to the articles themselves)

An interview with Michael Mayes & Matthias Klink a few days before the premiere

https://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.matthias-klink-und-michael-mayes-in-der-staatsoper-stuttgart-o-gott-wo-bin-ich.66980ce4-6ded-47d2-ad64-45d06aeb6e07.html

To get a range of opinions, a few reviews that have been published already and that are not behind a paywall

https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/oper-nixon-in-china-in-stuttgart-intellektuell-spannend-und.1013.de.html?dram:article_id=445707

https://onlinemerker.com/stuttgart-staatsoper-nixon-in-china-von-john-adams-premiere/

https://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.nachtkritik-nixon-in-china-an-der-staatsoper-stuttgart-john-adams-minimal-oper-in-stuttgart-bejubelt.738ce81c-8051-401d-b627-a58b2b0f4813.html

https://www.br.de/nachrichten/kultur/nixon-in-china-in-stuttgart,RMzk0dO

 

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