Staging the operatic lives of Richard Nixon, Alberto Gonzales and Anna Nicole Smith

(Anna Nicole Smith By Sgranitz)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 10:00 AM

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 the "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 Klinghoffer" (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 from Feb. 4 through Feb. 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 on stage 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 bestselling 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-than-life quality: something with high drama and large emotions. If you're going to burst into song on stage, the reasoning seems to go, then you'd better have something big to sing about.


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