WHEN the curtain goes up on tonight's world premi`ere of John Adams's new opera, ``Nixon in China,'' at the Gus S. Wortham Theater Center, a milestone in the cultural history of this economically troubled city will have been passed. Though the $70 million complex opened last May - four months earlier than expected - ``Nixon in China,'' along with Verdi's ``A"ida'' (to be telecast Oct. 30 on PBS), represents the real beginning of the center's function as home for the Houston Grand Opera.
At a time when the economic well-being of this oil city is just beginning to look upward, the Wortham Center is a spot of optimism. The two-theater complex is a technological jewel, and though it was tightly budgeted at $75 million, the final tab was $5 million less, without compromise to the technological features.
This has all been good news to David Gockley, who is celebrating his 15th year as general director of the Houston Grand Opera. ``If the project had been one or two years later in its cycle, it might not have gotten off the ground, because what has happened is quite cataclysmic,'' he declared in a recent interview. ``I think the feeling seems to be now that it won't get any worse, and there are signs that business activity is on the upswing.''
Right now, Wortham is having a flurry of activity. Monday night the center was sharing a ``Nixon in China'' dress rehearsal in the 2,066-seat Brown Theater, while in the 1,066-seat Cullen, there was a special concert built around an ``Italy in Houston'' festival. Thus the hallways and the vast, visually startling lobby resounded with mixed strains of Italian pop music and the pulsating, undulating tones of John Adams's epic score.
As to how ``Nixon in China'' came to be considered for the opening troika of productions, Mr. Gockley says, ``I had in mind all along that I wanted to have the theater open with something old, something new, something small, so that people could come in and say, `Well, they don't just do `A"ida.' They have a commitment to new works, they want to regularly program the small theater with the kinds of things that work in a small theater.''' (The Cullen opens with Peter Mark Shifter's production of Mozart's ``The Abduction From the Seraglio,'' set on a 1930s Hollywood sound stage.)
``Nixon in China,'' which moves on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., next month, and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December, is a major undertaking, and is the focal point of a good deal of media attention. The events depicted are, after all, a scant 15 years behind us. And there is a certain thrill in going to the opera to watch Mr. Nixon emerge from Air Force One to be greeted by Chou En-lai, just as remembered from TV coverage at the time.
Curiously, Gockley didn't really even know there was such a work being planned until he was talking with director Peter Sellars about projects for the smaller Cullen Theater. Gockley's interest was the final gesture that Mr. Adams needed to be convinced about the project - his first opera - since the poet Alice Goodman was already committed to do the libretto.
The gala first-night audience will doubtless be in hopes of experiencing an artistic triumph. They will have already witnessed Albert Paley's towering, whimsical steel-banner sculptures that line the escalators to the grand foyer.
But they can only imagine how up to date the huge backstage facility is. And they may not fully appreciate what to Gockley is one of the best reasons for moving into the complex: ``For the first time in my history we will be self-contained under one roof,'' he says. ``And we will have an actual home of producing - a home where the entire administrative and production staff, all the rehearsals, coaching sessions, opera studio, and the performances will take place under one roof.''
It was inevitable that the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet would have to find a better facility than Jones Hall, which they shared with the Houston Symphony as well. But no one really wanted to believe that the economic slowdown, first noticed around the time of the Wortham groundbreaking in 1984, would lead to the oil crash of '86. Gockley explains that these financial woes did not drastically affect the completion of the center, but they did affect his capital budget.
Consequently, the inaugural season was reduced from 10 operas to seven, though Gockley still talks about eventually working up to 12 in a season. Equally important to him is the possibility of presenting more than one opera at a time - a draw for critics (``because national attention translates into local pride, which translates into more dollars'') and eventually opera lovers and tourists.
Under Gockley's direction, the Houston Grand Opera has become a major US troupe known for its world premi`eres and revivals of American works, as well as for its often-innovative stagings of standard classics. Houstonians would find Verdi's ``Rigoletto'' or Mozart's ``Don Giovanni'' the same year they'd be presenting Gershwin's ``Porgy and Bess'' (a production, incidentally, that is now over a decade old and still touring the country to sellout success).
Gockley thinks about the future a good deal, particularly in these economically difficult times. He remains essentially optimistic, despite his practicality. He knows that money is not easily forthcoming these days and has cut back the season to make it easier to ask for more limited funds. But he does not see this as a forever situation.
``I would like the company to be looked back upon by posterity as having made a major contribution to the so-called American repertoire, legitimizing it, in the case of a `Showboat' or a `Porgy,' and bringing such works to the opera house with the kind of treatment that's possible in our opera house, and also working to create a viable new repertory. And ... that our particular style and values would be adopted elsewhere, and our artists be used elsewhere, and that we would make a major statement about the viability of the art form in this day and age.''