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Ronald Reagan gets hymned in Eric Reda’s new opera.
By Marc Geelhoed
Time Out Chicago / Issue 80 : September 7, 2006 - September 13, 2006

TEAR DOWN THAT (FOURTH) WALL Four soloists are Reagan’s children in a June 12 preview.

Ronald Reagan, unlike Richard Nixon, isn’t an obvious choice for the subject of an opera. Nixon had the ego and pathos of a great ruler, which inspired plenty of fear and loathing, not to mention the Vietnam War and Watergate, which added to his mythology. Reagan’s warm, fatherly presence doesn’t rise to Nixon’s operatic heights. But it’s precisely that quality that attracted Eric Reda to Reagan as a subject for his first opera, Reagan’s Children, an excerpt of which will be performed this weekend as part of the Around the Coyote arts festival.“Reagan was the president when I was a kid,” Reda says. “He embodied that [office] and he embodied that Greatest Generation ideal.” For Reda, the soft-spoken leader was a masculine symbol who stood for everything good with the world. “My grandfather was a Marine, and Reagan played a Marine on TV,” Reda says, noting a connection made by many American voters.

Reda’s composing life came out of a childhood spent in the Phoenix Boys Choir, where he discovered opera on a group trip to hear Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing in a football stadium. He was nine, and he was hooked. “It was in the Arizona State University football stadium, and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

Reda then went to Arizona State to study music. His composition teacher, Chinary Ung, showed him John Cage’s chance techniques and other key 20th-century means of writing. Like many young composers, Reda had previously only considered sounds that are easily singable.

Reda’s concept for the opera began to come into focus shortly after Reagan’s death, in 2004. “His funeral was surreal,” he says, ticking off a list of “former senators and presidents, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hollywood types [who attended].” Even though Reda didn’t go to California for the funeral, television was more than able to satisfy his Reagan fixation. “I was addicted to [watching the events around the funeral],” he says. While reflecting on Reagan’s life, Reda found the key to his opera by observing the strange mixture of people and personalities in attendance.

Of course, for Reda to plan his own political opera, John Adams’s Nixon in China had to be addressed. It provided a starting point for ideas, but was simultaneously a roadblock to innovation. “It’s really hard to escape John Adams; he’s kind of the Copland of our age,” says Reda. Still, he notes that it gave him “permission to explore a contemporary topic in contemporary terms.”

While Reda is quick to note that he doesn’t share Reagan’s politics, he concluded that Reagan meant a lot to many people, regardless of their political views. While he tried to avoid making his opera political, he acknowledges that in focusing on a political figure, “your work is going to be political.” Instead of putting a political flavor on the opera, Reda structured the memories of Reagan’s children to form a lens for the audience to view and reflect on the former president. Unlike Adams’s Nixon template, in Reda’s work, Ronald and Nancy neither appear nor are characters.

Reda turned to a lyrical, graceful musical style to impart the thoughts of Reagan’s four children after their father died. Using the kids’ speeches from Reagan’s internment ceremony, he fashioned a libretto that required some significant alone time. “I actually took a vow of silence for a week in a Trappist monastery in Des Moines,” he says.

For this weekend’s performance, Reda cut back the full opera, utilizing just one piano, one cello and the four soloists. While that may be a little conservative for an opera orchestra, Reagan would surely approve of the cost-cutting measure.

A Project of:

The NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY production of REAGAN'S CHLIDREN: An Opera-Oratorio is partially supported by a grant from the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts Committee at Northwestern University.

REAGAN'S CHLIDREN: An Opera-Oratorio is partially supported by a Community Arts Assistance Program grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

REAGAN'S CHILDREN: An Opera-Oratorio •