ONE FOR THE GIPPER
Reagan gets hymned in Eric Reda’s new opera.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.