Becoming Richard Nixon: An Interview with Baritone James Maddalena

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James Maddalena and Janis Kelly as Richard and Pat Nixon in Adam's "Nixon in China." Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 25, 2011.(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
James Maddalena and Janis Kelly as Richard and Pat Nixon in Adam's "Nixon in China." Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 25, 2011.(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Baritone James Maddalena created the role of Richard Nixon in John Adams’ opera Nixon in China in 1987.

And now, nearly twenty-five years after the opera’s premiere, the work is at the Metropolitan Opera in a production by Peter Sellars, with Maddalena recreating the title role.

Here’s a talk I had with Maddalena earlier today:

[audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/JIM.mp3"]

Q: When you first began to prepare for this role, was there anything about Richard Nixon that surprised you?

A: Growing up and just watching [Nixon] on TV, I was surprised at how much there was to dig in to in his character. He’s really a person of many layers, and conflicts, and personality. And the more I read about him, the more fascinated I became by him.

Of course, [librettist] Alice Goodman, and John Adams and Peter Sellars, take it sort of deeper, beyond the headlines and the sort of CNN way of looking at things. Ironically, these operas are called CNN operas and this anything but a CNN opera, because we really try to dig deep.

The wonderful part is just trying to imagine the inner life of Richard Nixon, because, of course, we don’t really know about it. But from what you read and find out about the guy you can create this world.

It’s like any great masterpiece, every time you do it you just scratch the surface a little deeper.

Q: For a lot of people Richard Nixon remains an anathema, people just recoil at his name, a lot of people do. But my impression is that after people see a performance of this opera they end up liking him more, or at least feeling for him. Have you felt that from the audiences?

A: Yes, I think so. Of course, when you listen to these White House tapes there are some monstrous things. There is that side, and then there is the side that really, truly thought this meeting with Mao would usher in a new era of peace in the world, which is something that he desired greatly and very sincerely. There’s no doubt.

Q: I understand that Tricia Nixon attended your opening night at the Met. Did she know the piece? Had she seen it before?

A: I don’t think she had, and she really loved it. She came back for the first act to take some pictures and she said was enjoying it. But, somebody I know who was sitting near her said she leapt to her feet at the end of the opera, so I think she really enjoyed it.

Q: You were quoted in a recent Opera News saying this is the most difficult part you sing. And you’ve sung a lot of difficult music over the years, what makes this so much of a challenge?

A: Well, [Adams]’ early vocal writing. This is [his] first opera, so the piece is really written all in what is called the passaggio. For me, that’s E-natural. So, it’s E-natural relentlessly. It’s challenging, and the older I get the more challenging it gets. When you’re young, you’re so strong, you can do anything. But I just have to be more intelligent about the way I approach it now. And, it’s just the first act stamina wise. It’s a huge scene the first act, it’s three big scenes.

Watch Maddalena as Nixon

Compare the original scene, Nixon’s arrival in China on February 21, 1972:

With it’s depiction in the opera (from the original production of Nixon in China, with James Maddalena as Nixon, Carolann Page as Pat Nixon and Sanford Sylvan as Chou-En Lai).

It’ a fascinating opera, beautifully performed.

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