It’s really different. These are people who lived during my lifetime. I don’t remember them well. I was in middle school around the time all of this happened; I wasn’t paying attention. But there’s all this archival material to look at — and they come to life once you start reading. There were books about the Nixons and their marriage that were quite interesting, especially “Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage,” by Will Swift and “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” by Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
In every single video or photograph from the visit, Pat stands out because of her fashion, which was all very carefully chosen. I get to wear the red coat, which is helpful. I had a talk, thanks to a friend, with Frank Gannon, who knew the Nixon family for about five years and was a special assistant in the White House at the time of the trip. He was able to shed light on their marriage — on how crazy they were about each other, especially him for her. She was extremely protective of him and of their children.
The piece is not mocking her.
On the contrary, I think the creators genuinely respected her. I was surprised, too, because they really aren’t as kind to some of the other characters, namely Henry Kissinger. Alice Goodman’s text is so exquisite. Especially for Chou En-lai, and for Pat Nixon it’s beautiful and poetic. The images in Pat’s main aria, “This is prophetic,” are a vision for what this alliance could look like in a positive sense.
I love singing it, and I love portraying her — and in this production, I spend the whole second act with a dragon, which is quite delightful, and which exemplifies her positive vision for this alliance. There are so many beautiful vibrant pictures created in this scene, and all of them heartfelt. It feels to me like a particularly feminine point of view.
What is it like to sing this score, in Adams’s distinctive style?
It’s challenging to learn, because it changes meter every bar pretty much, and the aria has a quite high tessitura; it sits consistently too much up at the top of the staff. It’s beautiful music, and what makes it possible is that the higher phrases are separated by a few bars so you can relax, get a rest. I also love the unique use of the orchestra. Just to look down into the pit and see five or six saxophones and two pianos creating an extraordinary texture gives me an enormous pleasure. The top of the second act, Pat’s act, is such a joy. It has a sparkling quality to it that you just can’t help but respond to.