Star Soprano Renée Fleming Adds a New Role to Her Repertoire: Pat Nixon

From a New York Times story by Ben Miller headlined “Renée Fleming Adds a New Role to Her Repertoire: Pat Nixon”:

In May 2017, the star soprano Renée Fleming sang the role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” for the last time — and with that, said goodbye to one the roles that had defined her career.

Since then, Fleming, 64, has appeared in concerts and on Broadway, and premiered a new opera, “The Hours,” which was written for her. Now, for the first time in a decade, she is preparing a role debut in the established repertoire: Pat Nixon in John Adams’s 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” which opens at the Paris Opera on Saturday in a new production by Valentina Carrasco.

Some sopranos in their 50s and 60s have voices that darken and thicken, making them perfect for character roles, often vengeful older women like Klytaemnestra in Strauss’s “Elektra” or the Kostelnicka in Janacek’s “Jenufa.” Fleming, who has always had both a fastidious technique and a strong instinct to protect her voice, still sings with her characteristic pure, blooming tone.

This makes Pat Nixon, the former first lady whose musings on “the simple virtues” and “the fruit of all our actions” are the beating heart of the opera’s second act, a logical, though initially surprising, choice. Fleming has thrown herself into preparation with her typical studiousness: reading books and articles about the Nixons, studying film reels to capture what Carrasco called Nixon’s “gestures, smoking — she was a heavy smoker — and slightly constricted and strained smile.” Fleming discussed her approach to the role in a video interview from Paris.

“Nixon in China” is defined in so many people’s heads by the iconic original production by Peter Sellars that came to the Met. How does this staging differ?

It’s a bit madcap, I would say, in a good way. There’s a lot of creative choices to bring this piece alive that are quite different than anything I’ve seen. I’ve watched most of what’s available, at least on the internet; it’s just been tremendous fun. People have treated the piece in an insistently serious way. This is the first time where — I think enabled by the passage of time — a director could say, “We all know what happened, we’re familiar with the piece, and now we can think about it in a different way.”

Why Pat Nixon?

I’ve been a tremendous fan of John Adams forever. There was a period when I was emailing him on a regular basis to see if there was anything of his that he thought I could do. I’ve always loved new music and have been performing a lot of it since I was a student. But nothing worked out until this.

How is it to play someone like Pat Nixon who — as opposed to a princess, or mermaid or other standard opera heroine — is in our cultural memory?

It’s really different. These are people who lived during my lifetime. I don’t remember them well. I was in middle school around the time all of this happened; I wasn’t paying attention. But there’s all this archival material to look at — and they come to life once you start reading. There were books about the Nixons and their marriage that were quite interesting, especially “Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage,” by Will Swift and “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” by Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

In every single video or photograph from the visit, Pat stands out because of her fashion, which was all very carefully chosen. I get to wear the red coat, which is helpful. I had a talk, thanks to a friend, with Frank Gannon, who knew the Nixon family for about five years and was a special assistant in the White House at the time of the trip. He was able to shed light on their marriage — on how crazy they were about each other, especially him for her. She was extremely protective of him and of their children.

The piece is not mocking her.

On the contrary, I think the creators genuinely respected her. I was surprised, too, because they really aren’t as kind to some of the other characters, namely Henry Kissinger. Alice Goodman’s text is so exquisite. Especially for Chou En-lai, and for Pat Nixon it’s beautiful and poetic. The images in Pat’s main aria, “This is prophetic,” are a vision for what this alliance could look like in a positive sense.

I love singing it, and I love portraying her — and in this production, I spend the whole second act with a dragon, which is quite delightful, and which exemplifies her positive vision for this alliance. There are so many beautiful vibrant pictures created in this scene, and all of them heartfelt. It feels to me like a particularly feminine point of view.

What is it like to sing this score, in Adams’s distinctive style?

It’s challenging to learn, because it changes meter every bar pretty much, and the aria has a quite high tessitura; it sits consistently too much up at the top of the staff. It’s beautiful music, and what makes it possible is that the higher phrases are separated by a few bars so you can relax, get a rest. I also love the unique use of the orchestra. Just to look down into the pit and see five or six saxophones and two pianos creating an extraordinary texture gives me an enormous pleasure. The top of the second act, Pat’s act, is such a joy. It has a sparkling quality to it that you just can’t help but respond to.

Adams insists that singers in his operas are enhanced with microphones given the thickness of the orchestral textures. How does that feel?

I find being miked helpful. I think that as orchestras and conductors have less time to work on balance, and the demands being made on singers just to be loud — if that continues to increase, I don’t think it’s helpful to the art form to insist that there never be any enhancement on the stage. There’s a huge difference between a subtle enhancement — already being used in a lot of theaters because the acoustic is poor — and full-blown amplification. I appreciate it, especially because a lot of what I’m doing is way upstage. And many set designers don’t want to be forced into building boxes all the time to help us with the acoustic.

When “Nixon” premiered, it was sometimes dismissively called a “CNN opera” because of its engagement with current events and politics. Now, this production premieres amid growing tensions between the U.S. and China and protests in Paris.

Travel to China for artists had just opened up — but now surveillance balloons, or the American discovery of surveillance balloons, seems to have messed that up. I hope that communication continues. It serves everyone, and both sides know that. It’s a really sensitive time. There are a lot of Chinese artists in the show, some of whom live in China, and even doing this piece is sensitive for them. There were images to be used in a montage at the end of the opera that had to be changed or modified because of those sensitivities. The montage is trying hard to be objective about these conflicts and their relationship to what happened at the time the opera is set. It seems to be more sensitive to discuss what’s happening now than what happened in Mao’s time.

Outside of our dressing rooms last night, there were fires on the street. There were demonstrators running from the Place de la République to the Bastille. That’s what it’s been like every day. It’s ironic, because my [1991] debut here in “Figaro” had demonstrators outside, who then during the show broke into the theater. It was quite uncomfortable, because someone actually came onstage with a huge machete. So thus far, it’s really been not too terrible.

Bennet Evan Miller is an English actor, comedian, and author.

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