This is part 1 of 2 interviews with two members of the creative team behind the upcoming production of Nixon in China.
Part 1 features Michael Cavanagh our director for Nixon in China. Mr. Cavanagh recently took some time to talk with us about the production, its origins two years ago at the Vancouver Opera, and its journey to Kansas City. Read below to learn about the vision Mr. Cavanagh brought to this production.
Q: We’re producing your production of two years ago, debuted in Vancouver. Is that production “finished” in your mind, or are you still thinking about it and hoping to improve or alter aspects due to thinking you’ve had since then?
Mr. Cavanagh: I think you have to. It’s got to be a living, breathing thing. Otherwise I could send an assistant to simply restage it. The most important thing is the cast. There is only one member of this cast that is the same as in Vancouver. So it would be really unfair to my artists if I just wanted to put them in like cookie cutters. Richard Nixon is a known entity, but this is a sort of interpretation of Richard Nixon. And we have a master interpreter in James Maddelena. All of the singers are masters at what they are doing, so it would be arrogance to the nth degree for me to just cut and paste what I did two years ago. I’m a different person. I have different artists to work with, and it’s a living art. So yes, it will be different.
Q: Approaching this production, even though it’s your production, is it different to approach another production of something you’ve done than it is a production someone else has designed?
Mr. Cavanagh: Sure it is. It’s way more fun. Because we talk of making art, but it’s really the art of making compromise, especially when you are working on a set that is not your own, one that doesn’t work quite right for what you want to do. So you’re rearranging set pieces and … it’s like those home renovation television shows where they’re trying to complete a project in a weekend on a limited budget … that’s what it feels like. To be able to work within your own custom built house with a little bit of repainting – to extend the metaphor – is fantastic and so fun. I’ve been checking in with the “me” of two years ago and saying “yeah, that is what I wanted – you were pretty smart back then. That’s not bad. That’s a great idea!” And then of course, you try to advance the work you’ve already done as well.
Q: So moving back 4 years – when you were first conceptualizing the production.
Mr. Cavanagh: The first year was pondering, planning, discussing, research, directing other productions. And then several trips to meet the designer. Which is like going to the dog park – you have to do a little sniffing. And getting to know each other a little bit, even though we knew each other’s work. Itwent so well, we really fired on all cylinders from the start. All of the “genesis moments” happened two years out [from opening in Vancouver].
Q: Where did the give and take begin with the General Director as you conceptualized the opera?
Mr. Cavanagh: James Wright, General Director of Vancouver Opera, is a “truster.” If you want to hire people you trust, then trust them. It’s the second part of that equation that is very hard to do. He hired me and said “I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with it.” He didn’t say “take this approach.” He didn’t say “watch out for that.” He didn’t say “I really want it to say this.” He said, “I’m looking forward to seeing your show.” More specifically he said “you have no budget. I want you to go play” – he set us free. The gift he gave me was not having to think about the constraints of budget first, and he said “come back with what you come back with, we’ll price it out and see how far off you are. And then the initial vision that inspired that overly produced first version will then survive.”
Sure enough, we presented early model designs and he said “I’ll take it – it’s fantastic.” There was no second step where they said “we can’t afford that.” What is on stage is our vision. How fun is that?
One thing we always thought as we were envisioning this production is that we wanted it to travel. We wanted to create a stage world that could expand and contract. The Vancouver stage is massively wide, so we had to fill that big space. [The Kauffman Theatre] is not as wide, and there is another theatre that this production might be going to that is smaller yet. We wanted to be able to shrink it down and expand it and keep it nimble that way. It can’t travel in too many trucks, and it can’t be too expensive to set up or tear down, and all those details were in the backs of our minds, but not the fronts of our minds because it wasn’t an imposition on us when we started the process.
This has changed since, but at the time it was the biggest, most expensive opera Vancouver had produced. It helped a lot that it was timed to coincide with the Olympic Games. They couldn’t afford to make any subtle statements during that time.
Q: You and Erhard get together. How did you arrange that first meeting? Did you share information/vision with him first?
Mr. Cavanagh: I remember very clearly. We had a good phone call. It was a very collegial conversation and I said I’ll make the first move. So I wrote an essay of the big conceptual ideas with and occasional hint at a visual palette. Color statement, certain conceptual elements. But I deliberately stayed away from being so definitive as to say “I need a door stage left.”
He came back and said “I like this, I’m crazy about that, I’m not so crazy about that,” which was fantastic. We went away to work and think and came together again. He had some sketches and some ideas and little model pieces, a lot of which I liked. I’d love to go back to that meeting now and see how far from that initial vision we strayed. That was an intense 3-day multi-session. We went away and cogitated again, and built from those agreed to common elements. When we came together again six months later, it was very close to what we have now. Just a few details/elements to add or take away. And that process continues. It’s a decrescendo of rearrangement.
Q: This production is dynamic and kinetic.
Mr. Cavanagh: Those things were intentional and deliberate.
Q: Were there elements of previous productions you felt worked well and wanted to preserve, or problems you wanted to solve?
Mr. Cavanagh: No. This is a complicated question. I had never seen either of the big two productions that were in existence. I had seen neither of them live, and on video or whatever I had seen parts and pieces. Probably over time I have seen the entire Sellars production, the original PBS one, a piece here, all out of order and context, for research. But honestly I couldn’t sit here and tell you what approach he took. I have the airplane arrival in my memory but none of the rest of it.
And the Robinson production I hear great things about. It was a completely different approach. I know it involved a lot of TVs, but that’s about all I know. They took a sort of archival video, miniaturized approach. Very cool. I’d like to see it. I didn’t go out of my way to avoid it or to look at it. I think that’s important. And again, I wanted to stay free in my thoughts. I didn’t want to say “we must do something that’s never been done before.” I hoped that what we came up with wasn’t exactly like the other productions.
I had to be guided by what I thought served the piece best. Otherwise I think you’re being disingenuous. You’re trying to create something in reaction to other productions. That does happen in our art form, but I feel that’s serving the director more than it is the creators of the piece. I would be a fool to ignore other references or reference points, and I research endlessly, but it’s in service to the piece, not to my creative ego.
Q: Is there anything about Nixon as a person you wanted to faithfully portray, amplify or avoid?
Mr. Cavanagh: I think it’s fantastic that he’s not demonized in this show at all. If anything, it’s helping to rehabilitation of his image. The film Frost/Nixon is helping that as well. He is so much more than Watergate. Always was. And absolutely regardless of your politics, you can’t ignore the guy’s dedication to his country, and his huge intellect. He was a much smarter guy than anybody seems to give him credit for these days. Well that’s changing thanks to things like Frost/Nixon and this opera.
We’ve been exploring this in rehearsal, and Jim Maddelena and I agree on this. He was actually too smart. He got in his own way. There is a level of intelligence where you can actually overthink everything. And analysis can become paralysis. And I think this was Nixon’s problem in a lot of things. He was a lot less of a capital R Republican than we think of him today. He was much more of a centrist. Others make a point that he was too moderate to win the Republican nomination today.
One of the reasons for that, and one of the reasons that drew him into politics in the first place, was his interest in the world, in this 3-D chess game that is world politics. He had an insatiable curiosity, and they say he was the most tuned in U.S. President to things international than perhaps President Clinton. The best grasp of the intricacies of geo-politics. I absolutely wanted to show his hunger for this.
Everything that takes place on this trip is pre-Watergate, even though the break-in was happening nearly simultaneously.
He took an enormous political gamble, calculated gamble, and was as popular as he ever would be because of it. That’s the Nixon I wanted to present.
Q: John Adams writes a great piece about Nixon’s awareness of the media. How did that notion play into your design?
Mr. Cavanagh: It was a big factor. Nixon knew the media were essential, but he knew it because he had people continually reminding him. The media were a thorn in his side from the get-go. Haldeman was really the guy who got it. He was the one who choreographed and stage managed all the journalists. We think Nixon was the first American to step foot in China, but in fact there were dozens of Americans had been there for weeks orchestrating things just so. Kissinger had been there already. Hague had been there. Plus all these diplomats. It was hardly a voyage of discovery in that way. But what it also was, was one of the first greatest live televised events in history. Nixon, who never forgot a slight, still remembered the epic failure from the televised debates with JFK. He was obsessed with make-up and the shifty-eyed vision we have of him is because he was wondering what the photographers were doing at all times. He was so tuned into the power of it because he was reminded of it constantly. But he did not take to it naturally. He was a very private guy, which is unusual for someone with such a public life, and that humanizes him for me, and I hope us, because we get to see that kind of haunted feeling and we’ve all felt that, especially in this age of omnipresent media and the loss of control over our own image.
That’s what this production does. We capture these moments – on film onstage – and we edit them in a way, we scramble them, and we project them back so the audience is invited to participate in this shards of memory exercise that the characters are all going through, especially in the third act.
One of the reasons I think this production was successful was because of the way we chose to handle the third act. The weight of what was really happening was on people – the big 6 especially – we know that as a fact. And when that happens, when you’ve been put through the ringer and you’re exhausted, and jetlagged, your impressions and your memories of what recently went on start fracturing. Becomes hallucinatory. The reality train jumps the tracks, and that’s why we’ve set up the third act as a junkyard of memories. And the further the third act goes on, the more fractured. We start with the most immediate memory, and replay what has happened onstage before. We see cameras onstage a lot now, but it’s not often that we see what has been captured and then projected back for us. Often it’s canned. But in our production, it’s what happened live onstage that night. We play it back and the audience remembers seeing that, and it becomes this participatory exercise.
And these things get stripped away and go farther and farther back in our memories and the stage gets cleaner and cleaner as we go backwards in time and the people see what made them who they are and their memories of the earliest times for each of the characters. And then in the very end, what the production does is flip all of those memories into how history will view them, and that’s when we bring out those big iconic images. The people and the events are stripped away and we are left with these big resonant monoliths to pose the question. We chose the images on the monoliths carefully – they all have an uneditorializing expression and we are challenging the audience to make sense of the events they witnessed that evening.
This piece is in terms of plot, is about Nixon’s trip to China. And in order to be great it has to have layers. And it has to connect with the viewers. By emphasizing the elements about memories and impression of events, it becomes about each individual audience member, and like all great art it becomes about the human experience.
Q: Tech in the Kauffman Center
Mr. Cavanagh: I remember the Lyric Theatre warmly, and I remember it being limited.
We had a production meeting just before this, and there certainly are some challenges. One of the things Erhard and I talked about early on is that we didn’t want to turn this into a slideshow or a movie production. We wanted to keep the focus on the live characters. So you have to use the technological superpowers for good and not evil. We’ve all seen shows where the choice was “okay, roll video again.” We wanted to use all the arrows in our quiver, but never to go to them too often, which is a delicate balancing act. We hope we got the balance right where there is focus on the intimacy of the theatre, the freshness of the current experience, blended with every technological advantage that a new theatre can give you.
When Pat gets her aria, we have a true close-up, which is extremely rare in the opera business. We’ve been trained to expect the intimate connection when you’re looking into someone’s face. The inability to do that in theatre has weakened some moments. When Pat goes farther and farther and farther into her thoughts, we get closer and closer and closer toward her face. It’s not a still picture of her, it’s her live, singing, and it fills the screen, and it’s a powerful moment. It’s not powerful because it’s so big, it’s powerful because we are so close to her. That’s the combination of technological advantage and theatrical intimacy that this production I think achieves.
For more information about the Lyric Opera’s production of Nixon in China, click here.