Backstage With ‘Nixon in China’

by Gabi De la Rosa on January 30, 2017 in Entertainment, Theatre, Living Texas, Houston,

Nixon in China, an original Houston Grand Opera (HGO) commission, premiered in 1987 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary right back where it started, on the HGO stage. The contemporary opera is a departure from what audiences typically think of, but it holds its own while telling the tale of Nixon’s historic visit with Chairman Mao.

A deep red color is prevalent throughout the production and although the sets are sparse, they are beautifully decorated. TV’s are present and audiences are treated to a backdrop of actual footage of the historic scenes. Andriana Chuchman is a calm and soothing Pat Nixon to the nervous and sweaty Nixon, played by Scott Hendricks. Hendricks, a former HGO Studio artist does a wonderful job of portraying Nixon without making him a caricature. Patrick Carfizzi, portrays Henry Kissenger who was National Security Advisor at the time of the historic visit. I was able to ask him about this opera and how he prepares for different types of performances.  

Patrick Carfizzi
Patrick Carfizzi

When most people think of opera they think of classical and Renaissance settings – is there a difference in how you prepare for an opera in this modern setting?
There is not a significant difference in my preparations for a modern opera. What is unique in the preparation of any character is that each requires its own time-frame for learning: Wagner can take weeks or months, the same is true for Verdi. With Adams, each has its own ‘learning curve’ dependent on the individual skill set of each individual artist.

Did you research the time period or characters?
Playing a living person is very rare in Opera. Because of this my research for Kissinger is ever evolving. While there is a huge cannon of information from which to work surrounding this historic event, it is fascinating to still witness Henry’s giving interviews but weeks before I play him on stage. His passion is still profound for some of his doctrines and philosophies which we address, in some small part, in our performances.

Patrick Carifizzi as Henry Kissinger; Scott Hendricks as Richard Nixon; Andriana Chuchman as Pat Nixon. Photo by Lynn Lane
Patrick Carifizzi as Henry Kissinger; Scott Hendricks as Richard Nixon; Andriana Chuchman as Pat Nixon. Photo by Lynn Lane

This is the 30th anniversary of this HGO opera – do you feel audiences will still find it relevant?
Yes. One of the many strengths of this piece is that it remains pertinent in terms of themes, text and musical language.  Throughout the rehearsal process we found ourselves making daily references to bits of news occurring in the present day; this is, in part, a testament to the craft of Goodman’s libretto as well as the musical depth of Adam’s composition. This is the third time I have had to honor of working on Nixon in China; I never stop learning through the work of these two geniuses. The irony of our opening on inauguration day is palpable.  

How long do you spend preparing for a performance?
In terms of learning process, I hope to have a minimum of at least six months when learning a new role, though I have learned operas in as few as 4 days. Preparation for a performance begins the night before with a good sleep. On the day of the performance common sense measures are in order; hydration, sensible eating, mom’s brownies, a trip to the gym, two vocal warm-ups and away we go! 

Photo by Lynn Lane
Photo by Lynn Lane

How many people are involved in this production?
The team for this production includes all of the performers you see on stage and in the pit as well as an army of Houston Grand opera professionals with specialties in musical preparation, technical theater, stage management, costume, make-up, crafts, administration, support-staff etc… all of whom are part of making Nixon in China come to life

What is your favorite scene in this opera?
My favorite scene in the opera is the entire third act. The abstract nature of storytelling which is employed always elicits a wide variety of responses from artists and audience alike; in short, it makes one reflect upon the humanity of these individuals in context of your own story.