Richard Nixon may best be remembered for his role in the Watergate scandals, but he is also credited as the man who opened Red China to the western world. His historic 1972 trip behind the bamboo curtain has been immortalized in John Adams' opera, Nixon in China, which premiered in 1987 and was revived this past summer by Opera Theatre of St. Louis in a technically groundbreaking production in which video plays a starring role.
The production was directed by James Robinson, with sets designed by Allen Moyer, costumes designed by James Schuette (making his OTSL debut), lighting design by Mark McCullough, and video design by Wendall K. Harrington. Their collaboration certainly made the opera world sit up and notice what was happening in St. Louis. There were two important “firsts” for the company in this opera: the first was the use of video; the second was the use of amplified voices.
The video concept was part of the production from the day that Moyer and Robinson presented their model for the set. The basic design included 12 televisions, six that moved up and down on a truss along the upstage wall, and six in 1970s-style consoles that moved about the thrust stage, serving as video monitors and set pieces. The televisions are the primary set elements in a decor with aluminum frame/poplar plywood walls and a 7/16" pre-primed Masonite floor, both lacquered in Chinese red. Bob Casey at Image Technology Corporation in St. Louis built the set.
The multiple screens would help overcome the sightline issues inherent with a thrust stage. “We had done limited slide projection in the past,” says Stephen Ryan, technical director for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, a five-week summer festival. The opera shares the 1,000-seat Virginia Browning mainstage at Webster University's Loretto Hilton Center with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and student productions that use the facility throughout the rest of the year. “Because of the thrust stage, the company line had been that projection was impossible. It was hard to design a production around screens.” Nixon in China was about to change all that.
One challenge for Ryan was boning up on projection technology. “I admit I wasn't up to date,” he says. “I talked to a lot of people asking them about the best source for video. Then Wendall Harrington came on board to design the video, and she said you have to have the Watchout System.” Ryan explored the cost of purchasing a Dataton Watchout system from Show Sage, a visual technology company in Fenton, MI.
“Everybody here had a major heart attack over the cost, but I looked at other options and realized Wendall was right, so we talked to the Dataton people and to video people to see how to make it work in this context,' Ryan explains. (Financial support for Nixon in China came through grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. AT&T was the National Corporate Sponsor). Another challenge was the repertory aspect of this festival. “That scared away a lot of local video companies, as we had to build the system then unplug it after every performance.”
Ryan notes that they also weighed the options of creating the video montage on Watchout, then running it off a hard disk. “But we finally decided to run it directly from the Dataton system instead,” he says. “One reason for this is that the opera is going to tour and each venue is different. Some places may add plasma screens and this way they can change the output or integrate it into other systems. We needed as much flexibility as possible.”
Enter Eric J. Woolsey, a young technical director and sound designer who graduated from Webster University this spring. He came back to school from a semester in Thailand and asked Ryan if there was anything interesting to do on Nixon in China. There certainly was. “The big challenge at this point was determining the cable path,” says Ryan. “We had to figure out how to communicate from the computers to the televisions that were 200' away.”
Woolsey got to work setting up all eight of the Watchout and two of the televsions and began to test signal paths, selecting video amplifiers and Ethernet hubs that would best get the job done. “Our theme became to buy the smartest equipment that would tell us the most information,” says Ryan. The Ethernet allowed for feedback with different colored lights to indicate if a cable was disconnected and if it was an input or output. “We had to continually set up the system with just 90 minutes for turnaround.”
Eventually a double cable system was employed: one that was installed and remained on stage for the entire festival season; and a portable one that was used in the ballet studio that Harrington and associate video designer/programmer Paul Vershbow used as their workroom. The 12 televisions, 32" store-bought Panasonics, were moved back and forth during the rehearsal period.
“The system was up and running by the time they needed to work on the programming,” says Ryan, who did not want the designers or the artistic process to be hampered by technical glitches or downtime. Another of his challenges was the color of the cables that had to be shielded in red to match the color of the set (as they are visible on stage). “I found a place called Cables To Go on the Internet,” says Ryan, adding that red is not an easy cable color to find.
The final cable snakes had two S-Video cable signals as well as power wrapped in a Koflex shield. “There is a spare S-Video signal built into the computer run, so that if we lost our signal for any reason, we had a second one built in.” The more than 1000' of cable will tour with the production, as will the Watchout system.
The Watchout system was in a video cabinet backstage and run by an IATSE operator, in this case Christine Shetley. “She had studied mass communication and corporate video in college, so she was a good fit,” says Ryan. “We were testing the limits of Watchout as we went along.”
WHAT'S ON TV?
Harrington's images create the atmosphere for the opera, reinforcing the action on stage, and are largely based on home movies that H. R. Haldeman took as he accompanied Richard and Pat Nixon and Henry Kissinger on their historic trip to China. “The monitors are crucial to the concept, as this was a big television moment, and one of the first big political events covered like that,” says Harrington.
With iconoclastic images like the famous one of Nixon waving as he walked down the steps on Air Force One upon his arrival in China in her mind, Harrington turned to her researcher, Susan Hormuth, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. “They have the Nixon Project there,” Harrington explains. “As images, clips, books, and articles become declassified they go there.” As timing is everything, Harrington was working on the opera just as the 50 reels of Haldeman's footage became available.
“He was everywhere you would want him to be and he was exhaustive,” says Harrington about Haldeman's images. “There is a lot of endearing, personal, idiosyncratic footage.” And even with the jerky, hand-held camera, this footage gave Harrington the raw material she needed for her video jigsaw puzzle. “The footage had aged badly as no one really took care of it,” she notes. “We had to color correct it, and try to slow things down. It needed to be musical, yet the franticness worked well with the score but we had to keep it in time with John Adams. The images make you hear the music better.”
Nixon's human side touched Harrington, as brought out by Robinson's direction and as seen in the images from China. “Nixon's trip was a blur, but he was captivated by it, so we layered the images to reflect his experience and not be ponderous. Yet the opera is about the accidental making of history. Once China was opened, the entire world economy changed for good, bad, or indifferent,” she says.
As Haldeman shot everything, from landscapes out of the car window to official banquets and parties, Harrington selected key moments of the 1972 trip, following the Nixons and Kissinger on meetings with Mao Tse-Tung, Chou En-Lai, and Madame Mao, mixed with some more general footage. When they go to the ballet, red curtains on the screens indicate that they are at the theatre. The costumes on stage echo the design and color of those actually worn on the trip, and the singers have an uncanny resemblance to their real-life counterparts which made the whole experience all the more real and believable. And with the juxtaposition of an American family eating Chinese food with chopsticks in front of their televisions with the historical footage roots the opera firmly in the political and cultural ideology of the 1970s.
Once she knew that the video images would be seen on 12 televisions, Harrington knew that Watchout was the only way to go. There are eight Watchout cubes, or eight channels, allowing for eight different images at any time, six of which were used for the TVs that moved around the stage, with one central computer telling the others to “go.”
“That means we could really move things around,” says Harrington. “But when all 12 screens had the same image it was very captivating, like counterpoint to having eight things going on at the same time. Not since Tommy did I spend so much time creating. There was an enormous amount of film editing.” She was extremely pleased with the way things worked out technically and notes, “I'd vote for Steve Ryan to be the technical director for every opera house in America.”
What did the video mean in terms of lighting the opera? LD in residence, MuCullough designed all four of the festival productions this year, using the rep plot he established (the in-house console is an ETC Obsession II® and the fixtures are primarily ETC Source Fours®, some with Morpheus Lighting's M Faders™). “For-tunately the television monitors are very bright and were not fighting the stage lighting the way other projections would. Mark's challenge was more to guide the audience focus to see the singers,” says Harrington, whose images are edited to follow the cues in Adams' powerful, yet minimalist score. “This is difficult music to hear the cues in,” she adds. “You have to follow the changes in the color temperature of the music. Paul was very instinctive about this, he is very musical in terms of hearing where the critical cues are.”
WIRED FOR SOUND
Using the new sound system he specified for the theatre last year, Bryan Erdmann of Audioactive Projects in St. Louis, also designed the sound for Nixon in China. The breakthrough here was the first-ever use of amplified voices. “A smaller version of Nixon in China had been done in Boston several months before, and the stage manager, Kurt Howard, brought a lot of the sound information with him,” explains Ryan. “Bryan made it sound good in our theatre.”
The new audio system was put in last year, so it made its debut with the opera festival this season. The main mixing console is the all-digital InnovaSon Sensory Live Series 56 in, 24 out, with a Yamaha GA 32/12 as a secondary mixer. Amplifiers are Crown CTs 1200 and CTs 3000, and the loudspeakers include SLS Coherent Line Array columns, SLS 112 RT for front fill, and JBL wing monitors. The microphones include Shure EC4 wireless with W93 mike heads for the singers, Crown PC-160s on the floor, and Shure 81s, Shure Beta 52s, and Crown PZMs for the orchestra pit. The sound engineer/board operator was Bob Wotawa, the opera's in-house IATSE sound techncian.
“I have a lot of experience with theatre and full orchestra,” says Erdmann. “I make sure the voices sound as true to life as possible and are as free as possible of artifice and enhancements.” The Coherent line array loudspeakers he selected are placed in columns along the right and left edge of the stage with 160° frequency dispersion. “My goal was to keep the amplification to a minimum,” he adds. “My goal wasn't to make it louder, but to be clearer during the crescendos, as there is singing while the orchestra was playing. Adams wrote the score for amplified voices and it goes hand-in-hand with the video component of the show.”
FOUR MORE YEARS
Nixon may not have gotten four more years, but this opera will. Various opera companies, including Minnesota Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, and Portland Opera, will present Nixon in China throughout the next four years. To help the technical staff at these opera houses deal with the video technology, Woolsey has created a trouble-shooting web site with a user-manual specific to the system used for Nixon in China, so that people can log on and check out problems and their solutions. “This allows you to narrow down the area where a problem may be coming from,” says Woolsey. “For the other co-productions we are going to try to take this a step further so that we will have the ability to view the screens of the video system remotely via the Internet.”
“Once we knew it was real, technically and financially, the other opera houses came on board,” says Harrington, who looks forward to seeing how the production looks in larger opera houses, some of which have I-Mag screens as dorsal fins along the outer edge of the proscenium. “There will be different problems to solve in a larger, proscenium space,” she says. “The challenge is how to direct the audience's eye to the right place.” As Nixon in China lives on, it is not only a clear case of art imitating life, but also proof that history repeats itself, even if only on stage.