'Nixon in China' adds intellect to arts convention in Denver

Opera Colorado put on Nixon in China during the performing arts convention, starring Robert Orth as Richard Nixon. The staging was light on its feet and allowed the score to shine.

MATTHEW STAVER | Special to the Times

Opera Colorado put on Nixon in China during the performing arts convention, starring Robert Orth as Richard Nixon. The staging was light on its feet and allowed the score to shine.

DENVER

About 4,000 people from symphony orchestras and choruses, theater, dance and opera companies converged here last month for the National Performing Arts Convention. This field is big on networking and groupthink, and there were dozens of cross-disciplinary panels on such topics as "Hip Hop: The Basics,'' "It's Great to Be Green!'' and "Boomers: A Blooming Audience, or Fading Flowers in the Cultural Scene?''

But the main obsession seemed to be the Internet, with many sessions on using the blogosphere to try to bring artists and audiences together. Ironically, NPAC received mixed reviews at best for its own blog (artsjournal.com/npac) and general lack of digital savvy. One obvious problem: Wireless access was not available at the sprawling Colorado Convention Center.

But the real problem was the blandly incoherent nature of a gathering of arts groups that, in the end, don't have all that much in common. The cultures of dance companies and symphony orchestras are very different; ditto for theaters and opera companies and choruses. The convention theme "Taking action together'' sounds like a good thing, but it didn't lead to a powerful, singular vision for the arts. With a management guru as keynote speaker, Jim Collins, it was hard to feel inspired.

For me, the highlights were performances by the host companies, including Opera Colorado's staging of John Adams' Nixon in China. Here are notes from a few of the events I took in.

China syndrome

With the Beijing Olympics approaching, Nixon in China felt smart. The Adams opera (with Alice Goodman's superb libretto) chronicles President Nixon's breakthrough journey to China in 1972, the moment that probably would have defined his legacy if not for Watergate. Directed by James Robinson, the production took the sentiment of Nixon's opening aria that "News has a kind of mystery'' and ran with it, filling the stage with a dozen TV sets showing video from the meetings in China.

Robert Orth and Maria Kanyova were stellar as Richard and Pat Nixon, with Orth's comic portrayal reflecting how feelings have mellowed toward the disgraced ex-president. Their Chinese counterparts, Mao Tse-tung and Madame Mao, were equally strong in performances by Marc Heller and Tracy Dahl. Chen-Ye Yuan, as Chou En-lai, had a gorgeous aria in the Act 1 banquet toast. The performance was recorded for a CD release by Naxos in 2009.

When Nixon in China premiered under director Peter Sellars in 1987, its iconic image was the massive Air Force One protruding from the wings. The staging in Denver seemed lighter on its feet without the airliner and with Sean Curran's choreography, including some evocative tai chi movement, but the star of the show remained Adams' churning, minimalist score. The endlessly repetitive passages provided a workout for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, ably conducted by Marin Alsop.

There were two other musical performances to divert conventiongoers. Central City Opera gave a rare performance of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia in its jewel box of a theater in an old gold-mining town outside Denver. The Colorado Symphony, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane, featured Natasha Paremski (a hit this past season with the Florida Orchestra) in John Corigliano's piano concerto and Giya Kancheli's Styx, a throbbing obbligato for viola (Basil Vendryes), chorus and orchestra.

Surviving a recession

Rick Lester, CEO of Target Resource Group, an arts marketing consultant, had some pithy advice on setting priorities during hard times. These no doubt found resonance among the considerable Tampa Bay delegation, which included folks from the Florida Orchestra, Opera Tampa, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Sarasota Opera:

1) The importance of opening night. "Most first-time subscribers,'' Lester said, "make a decision to renew or not renew based on the first performance they attend.''

2) Focus on blockbusters. "You have to take care of your flagship productions — the Beethoven Nines — in tough times. Put your artistic risks at the end of the season, when you've already got the renewal money.''

3) Market to the affluent. "People who buy expensive seats are always better prospects than those who buy less expensive seats.''

Good to great

I sat next to Florida Orchestra president Michael Pastreich while listening to the keynote speech by Collins, author of bestselling business books such as Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't. The biggest response from the audience came when Collins declared that the arts can't be run like a business.

"The measure of success has to be a culture of discipline. If you watch a great symphony orchestra play a Mahler symphony that goes in your ear, down your spine, gives you goosebumps, and you can't sleep, you see a culture of discipline.''

Pastreich leaned over and said to me, "What that means for us is that our masterworks series has to be the thing that drives everything we do.''

The arts and social change

The session that probably reminded many delegates why they went into the performing arts featured Germaine Acogny, founder of the International Centre for Traditional and Contemporary African Dance in Senegal, and Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education program that is a model for the rest of the world.

Both emphasized that art can change the world. Acogny talked of creating work to protest genocide in Rwanda — "I just wanted to cry out with my body as my instrument'' — and develop pride in being African.

Abreu said that El Sistema has 265,000 students — more than are involved in sports in Venezuela. "I am convinced that material poverty can be overcome by spiritual richness,'' he said. "El Sistema is primarily a social movement, with music as a tool.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

'Nixon in China' adds intellect to arts convention in Denver 07/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 4:30am]

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