Keith Bruce

NIXON in China, the first opera composed by John Adams, which premiered in Houston in 1987, still has a very strong claim to being the most important opera of the modern era. That would be as good a reason as any to revive it, but the new production that opens at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Tuesday has surely turned out to be especially well-timed.

Scottish Opera’s revival has been created in partnership with Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Theatre, where it opened last year, and it is directed by the theatre’s director of opera, John Fulljames, who last worked in Scotland on Janacek’s The Adventures of Mr Broucek, back in 2010.

Fulljames moved from an assistant’s job at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden to take charge of the Danish operation, and has absolutely no regrets. “I’ve been in Copenhagen for two and a half years; this is my third season and I’m loving it,” he tells me, and then explains why that is entirely understandable, on any number of levels.

The theatre is host to a full-time chorus and a resident ensemble of principal singers. The audience is there, too, a city of one million people supporting 110 opera performances a year. And some 70% of the turnover of the theatre comes in the form of a grant from the Danish government.

“With that level of public investment comes a sense of public ownership, so we are part of the cultural conversation,” says Fulljames. As his next production is a revival of Danish composer Poul Ruders’ 20-year-old adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that dialogue has lately been very up-to-the-minute.

“Nixon in China was the first time a John Adams opera has been done here and it landed well, because it feels so fresh. It is a contemporary conversation about politics in the age of media, and it is hard to think of a documentary opera before it,” he says.

Adams gives full credit for the idea for Nixon in China to the director Peter Sellars, and also credits his librettist Alice Goodman with establishing the objective tone of the piece that was inspired by Nixon's 1972 visit to China that, for all the humour in it, is never satirical.

“John Adams and Peter Sellars were young kids messing around,” says Fulljames, “and there is still as sense of rules being allowed to be broken – this was something totally new.

“Between the events of 1972 and its premiere in 1987 was the beginning of the new media age, when politics were being played out through the media. The concentration on creating a media event, like Nixon’s visit to China, was something new, something for a mediated audience. We are now well down that road, but this was the beginning of that journey for politics.

“The opera is a very faithful telling of the story of what really happened, but a mixture of fact and informed fiction in the way it depicts the characters’ emotional lives. It takes the events and then explores the interior lives of the politicians and their entourage.

“So all the events depicted are real events. The people who created Nixon in China made a detailed study of the archive and we can still go back to that same archive. But we are more aware now of how crucial was Pat Nixon’s role than Adams could be then – after all there is a form of female president in Scotland, and while Mrs Obama is an articulate politician, the current First Lady is just a bit different.”

Despite Adams coming from a political family on the other side of the divide in the US and being no fan of Nixon, who tried to send him to Vietnam, the lack of malice towards Tricky Dicky – and indeed Madame Mao, the former actress who was the architect of China’s Cultural Revolution – is another distinguishing characteristic of the opera.

“Our views are more polarised now and we demonise people on the other side. Nixon in China shows that all of these politicians were trying to do the right thing,” continues Fulljames.

“One of the things John Adams has said is that it is important to make the comedy of the piece work and Nixon in China is a very detailed comedy of manners. It is not political satire but the comedy of the minutiae of human life; the opera is not lampooning the characters at all. By the time it premiered, Nixon had become a figure of fun, but the opera treats him seriously, as a man not just defined by Watergate, although in the end it sees how powerless he is. That was radical in 1987.

“From the score I don’t think you get any lack of respect for Nixon, and the third act is an enormous piece of melancholy; his legacy was very limited, but there is a real respect for the humanity of these people.”

That may partly explain why the new production was a hit in Copenhagen, where Fulljames says Verdi and Puccini are popular but there is less appetite for Wagner and Strauss. The theatre’s current season includes La Traviata and Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen, and there is local repertoire that has to find a home in the schedule as well.

“We have a responsibility to have singing in Danish and there are some glorious 19th century Danish operas that are revived regularly here but don’t travel. The composer Carl Nielsen was a violinist in the orchestra and then musical director of the company.

“The Nordic repertoire is really under-explored, so we do co-productions with Riga, Oslo, Gothenburg and Malmo. The reality is that countries in Scandinavia are so small that they have to collaborate.”

The production of Nixon has another collaborator in Madrid’s Teatro Real and goes on to Spain in a couple of years, but, to the director’s regret, a planned partnership with a company in Moscow didn’t happen. “It would have been wonderful to take it East of the old Iron Curtain,” he says.

“I was very conscious that we were not staging it in America, or for an audience that knows the history, while Adams’ 1987 audience had watched these events on television. This is 30 years later and in Europe, so this production has the perspective not from the heart of the Cold War, but of someone watching, hopefully, from a distance.”

Fulljames’s new production of The Handmaid’s Tale will be travelling in the other direction, as a co-production with San Francisco Opera that plays there just before the upcoming Presidential Election.

Of course Ruders wrote the opera when Attwood’s novel was less well known across he world than it is now, and the public’s television literacy has been crucial to that revival as well.

“The TV series was one of the reasons for reviving it,” concedes Fulljames, “and the chance to engage a new audience, but like Nixon in China it deserves to be replayed. It fulfils our commitment to new music, and Danish music, but is not as much of a risk because there is a high level of recognition.

“In fact the next series launches on Danish television the night of one of the performances, so we are inviting people to stay on in the theatre and watch it on a big screen.”

Nixon in China is at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on February 18, 20, and 22 and the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on February 27 and 29.