Baritone's take on Tricky role

By William Dart

William Dart talks to a singer who has made his name in modern opera.
Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon in Nixon in China. Photo / Alastair Muir
Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon in Nixon in China. Photo / Alastair Muir

Auckland Arts Festival is justifiably proud to present the semi-staged New Zealand premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China next month, allotting it a spectacular spread in its handsome brochure.

Simon O'Neill, reprising the role of Mao Zedong that he played in San Francisco four years ago, is joined by two other singers from that production, including the dynamic young Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao.

So many contemporary operas disappear after one brave season, but this 1987 winner, based on Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, has been staged around the world.

It's not difficult to see why, and its brilliant solo turns, powerful choruses and dazzling orchestral writing will soon be showcased by our own Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Nixon in China has been dubbed a "CNN opera, ripped from the headlines," but Adams and librettist Alice Goodman have aimed for a piece that is, in the composer's words, "both theatrically entertaining and psychologically acute".

Australian baritone Barry Ryan, who plays the title role next month, is a veteran of stage productions of Nixon in Melbourne and Dublin. He remembers working with his Australian director at "getting Nixon's strange posture, with those hunched shoulders. It wasn't easy for a 5ft 8 redhead," he laughs. "In the first weeks of rehearsals I'd go home every night with sore shoulders and headaches."

Adams has written music that is "demanding vocally and very tricky musically," Ryan says.
"There are sections where, if I stop counting, I'm in big trouble."

Auckland audiences have yet to see how director Sara Brodie will deal with the opera's theatrical coup of Air Force One arriving on stage. However, within minutes of that, Ryan's first aria, "News has a kind of mystery," offers the key to the president's character.

"This aria sets up the whole opera and shows what Nixon's about," says Ryan.

"We did a lot of research and Nixon wasn't so media savvy at first," he continues. "In the beginning, he was pushed into the background by Kennedy being such a natural in that area. Nixon eventually realised that he needed to lock into what the press and TV could do for him to achieve his goals."

Ryan has made a name for himself singing today's music, creating roles in Brett Dean's 2010 opera, Bliss and Iain Grandage's The Riders (2014). Now he loves it more than anything else.

"At first I was worried I might be pigeon-holed," he shrugs. "Maybe I have been, but I don't mind a bit."

Working with composers is an extra and extraordinary bonus. "Bliss was Brett's first opera and he was happy to ask me for advice and Iain, after discussing my voice and its strengths, used that input to compose my role."

Reflecting on an extensive career, he remembers halcyon and busy times on the European circuit. "We didn't have to warm up," he says. "We'd be rehearsing one opera during the day, and performing another in the evening. We were constantly in the zone, building up the operatic equivalent of match fitness."

These days, Ryan manages stage work alongside teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium and, late last year, with his wife, soprano Anke Hoeppner, he adjudicated at Rotorua's New Zealand Aria competition. "I was completely gobsmacked," he says. "We had 10 singers in the finals but could have had 15 or 16. There were three who were absolutely outstanding, who could have walked into a professional situation anytime."

And, come next month, a number of these young singers will be boosting the ranks of New Zealand Opera's splendid Freemasons Chorus as it launches a 20th century masterpiece we have waited too long to experience.

Performance

What: Nixon in China, Auckland Arts Festival
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, March 17 & 19, 7.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

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