The one thing you should see this week: a probing opera about a world-changing event

The one thing you should see this week: a probing opera about a world-changing event

Robert Orth as Richard Nixon (Image: Michael Cooper) 

This week’s pick: Nixon in China at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

“The Cold War isn’t thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism isn’t sleeping; it is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting.” Less than a decade after uttering those words, Richard Nixon flew to China for some face time with Mao Tse-tung, boldly going where no American president had gone before. The men’s inaugural grip-and-grin was the handshake seen around the world. In 1987, an opera about the groundbreaking trip, a collaboration between composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars, premiered at the Houston Grand Opera. Featuring a pulsing minimalist score and unusual orchestration (including a synthesizer and four saxophones), Nixon in China went on to become one of the most frequently performed 20th-century operas. Indeed, the COC’s production has been a long time coming. (New York’s Metropolitan Opera is also currently staging its belated premiere.)

That said, late really is better than never. Nixon in China is a curious and clever opera, one that uses as its guide a historical event and historical figures so famous that they’ve been reduced to caricatures in the popular imagination. The production’s main singers nod to those clichés and then move quickly beyond them, infusing their characters—whether they be showboats, pedants or everywomen—with a touching self-awareness. Soprano Maria Kanyova is a stand-out as Pat Nixon, the former teacher who became the first First Lady to visit 80-plus countries and even enter a war zone, all while dealing with the increasing glare of the TV cameras. That glare is on full display here—12 televisions form the bulk of the set, broadcasting archival news footage and serving as everything from banquet tables to beds. The effect loses nothing in being unsubtle. Who better than a 2011 audience to grasp the unremitting pressure of life under a microscope?

The details: To Feb. 26. $62–$281 (standing room tickets, $12). Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., 416-363-8231, coc.ca.