Girls of Summer
MARIA KANYOVA dazzles OUSSAMA ZAHR with her knowledge of Pat Nixon, the lady she sings in San Francisco Opera's Nixon in China.
© Dario Acosta 2012
Maria Kanyova can rattle off a précis of Pat Nixon's life as accurate and efficient as a Wikipedia entry. She has sung the role of the First Lady in John Adams's Nixon in China no fewer than five times since 2004, all over North America, in two different productions — one by James Robinson, the other by Michael Cavanagh. ("Both gentlemen are masterminds of the theater," she says.) In the process, she has developed a feel for the composer's surreal take on the historic 1972 presidential visit to Communist China. But if Mrs. Nixon feels like an old friend to her now, Kanyova can easily remember a time when she was just getting acquainted with the First Lady and the deceptively difficult demands of Adams's score.
"We think of minimalism as kind of easy to grasp aurally," she observes. "At the beginning, I looked at it, I looked at the score, and I listened to it, and I thought, 'Oh, piece of cake. Noproblem.' It was so tonal. I was so glad." She laughs. "I got the melody in my ear right away, and very quickly after that, I realized that where my work really lay was in the rhythm, and that I would have to memorize measure by measure the meter changes. I would have to know when I am in 3/4 or 4/4 or 2/4. I would really have to map that out. Because it is so, so important that you don't mess up, or you can really, really get lost."
Kanyova, a native of St. Louis who now lives in Chicago, is currently enjoying the busy schedule of a successful American singer at mid-career. She sings everything from Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro to the title role of Madama Butterfly ("Nobody would think that one soprano would be doing that!"), making her a little difficult to categorize. "Usually, when people ask what kind of voice type I am, I just say soprano," she notes. "I kind of like to leave the doors open in all directions." She considers herself an actress at heart, and that's easy to believe for anyone who saw her gripping, three-dimensional portrayal of Nedda — a flawed, deeply sad woman with a touch of the vamp in her — in New York City Opera's 2007 Pagliacci.
This month, Kanyova travels with the Cavanagh production of Nixon to San Francisco Opera, where Bay Area audiences will get to hear her voice and Adams's masterpiece for the first time. Kanyova believes that this particular opera has something for everyone. "When I tell people that I'm doing Nixon in China — just say, my neighbor — and they have no idea, they don't understand opera at all, they might have heard the title La Bohème. And they'll look at me kinda funny. 'Nixon in China? Really? We don't even really think about Nixon anymore.' But I'll tell you, every single person that I talk to that has been to that opera and has had no prior familiarity with it, they walk away from that stunned in one way or another. They are stunned by the music, by just the spectacle of watching it. Seriously, people want more. It is just extraordinary."