Lyric Opera brings ‘Nixon in China’ to KC

Posted on Fri, Mar. 02, 2012

The Kansas City Star

James Maddalena figures he owes the 37th president of the United States.

Most significantly, the role of Richard Nixon in the groundbreaking John Adams opera “Nixon in China” became, literally, the role of a lifetime for the celebrated baritone.

He played the role in the 1987 world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, and he has played Nixon more than 100 times since. Maddalena will play him again when the Lyric Opera production opens Saturday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

But Maddalena owes Nixon in another way.

James Maddalena reprises the title role in "Nixon in China" for the Lyric Opera. (Todd Feeback/Kansas City Star)

“I graduated from high school in 1972,” Maddalena said. “Because of when my birthday is, I was 17 when I graduated high school, and I was too young to be drafted. I had to register for the draft, but by the time I turned 18 Nixon had abolished the draft.”

Indeed, Nixon was and remains a complex and often contradictory historical figure — shrewd, smart, politically astute and tough-minded, but also paranoid, delusional, sometimes comically inept and emotionally vulnerable.

He was, among other things, a politician who rose in the ranks of the Republican Party as a rabid anti-Communist but who as president withdrew American troops from the Vietnam War. And, the same year Maddalena graduated from high school, Nixon became the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China and establish relations with the most populous Marxist state on the planet.

Maddalena said his approach to the role in 1987 was pretty much as it is today: He immerses himself in all available information about Nixon.

“I did a lot of research,” he said. “I read everything I could get my hands on, and there’s quite a bit about Richard Nixon. And I have vivid memories of watching him on TV. …

“What I found really useful is that beautiful middle section of each biography where there’s all those black-and-white photos. And photos I think are so much better than video because you can study that frozen thought behind the eyes, you know. And if you look at many different photographs you can begin to develop a gestural vocabulary and to put it all together.

“Nixon is great because although he was famous for being a great poker player during the war, he had the worst poker face of any politician I’ve seen in my life. His emotions were just right out there in public. As a matter of fact, he made a comment once that he only really ever cries in public, which I thought was really amazing.”

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