Nixon In China Opera, by John Adams, Alice Goodman, & Peter Sellars
Thirty years after its premier, I decided to trot down to a commemorative showing of this popular opera. I came away regarding it as a magnificent accomplishment. One of only a dozen successful operas in the past half-century, Nixon In China more than fulfills its promise as envisioned when it first debuted with the Houston Grand Opera in 1987. The musical score by John Adams is arresting and evocative, not releasing the ear from beginning to end, as the verses by librettist Alice Goodman never release the eye from the equally evocative poetic imagery, the words—in English, as is the entire opera—helpfully projected above in print while sung by the performers.
In his 2008 book Hallelujah Junction, Adams states that his chief motivation for creating Nixon In China with Director Peter Sellars was to reflect Adams’ “antipathy” toward President Nixon, the “petty and Machiavellian…bogeyman of my young manhood,” while composing the music would be “a subversive pleasure,” providing an opportunity to express his outrage with the 1960’s military draft, the Vietnam War, Republican market economics with its “patriotically manufactured American goods,” and “Nixon’s imagined Middle America” with its “obedient and submissive American womanhood.”
Leaving aside Adams’ inordinately uninformed and sadly predictable politics, which reflected my own until I got an education, I’m happy to say that Adams managed to overcome his prejudices and construct a highly entertaining and thought-provoking opera. Attending any musical event, one hopes that the music will be memorable and original. Nixon In China excels in this.
However, certain oddities prevail. First, Nixon’s wife, Pat Nixon, has a bizarrely significant role. Not content with portraying Pat as a clueless simpleton obsessed with Republican Party elephants, NIC gives her an entire Scene to express her shallowness, a serious speed-bump for the audience who are left wondering why she is on the stage. Pat Nixon’s time on stage matches and may even surpass Nixon’s, leading one to question whether the ‘Nixon’ in Nixon In China actually refers to Pat Nixon rather than to the President, with Pat even rashly halting a propaganda performance of male Chinese landlords abusing female peasants to the chagrin of Nixon himself who is made to look the fool rushing to stop his even more foolish wife.
Okay, so we understand that NIC was meant as an attack on Nixon in particular and Republicans in general and that Pat was an easy mark. But, more surprisingly, Dr. Kissinger, the Harvard professor who served as Nixon’s “brain” and who largely orchestrated the two Détente’s with China and the Soviet Union in 1972, was given a minuscule role, largely confined to stumbling about mumbling that it would all come to naught. In the last scene, an actor who looks very much like Kissinger cavorts in the background, kissing and embracing Mao’s fanatical Communist wife, Chiang Ch’ing, in silence. Though this may be someone else and not Kissinger, the silent coupling could also be meant to imply that Kissinger and Ch’ing were responsible for the success of the mission behind the scenes, an enigmatic development in an enigmatic opera.
In the end, Adams’ litmus test left-wing views, for instance stunningly mischaracterizing “communism” (and no one informed on the subject could ever mistake actual historical ‘Communism’ for an ideal but non-existent ‘communism’) as merely a “social welfare state” intended to provide “human happiness” and comparing Nixon’s entry into China to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which impliedly switches the moral high ground from Nixon to the bloody tyrant Mao, are overcome—or at least compensated for—by the gripping musical score and lofty verses inspired by Mao’s Little Red Book.
Mao himself is accurately portrayed as a fanatical but flexible dictator in his dotage, with Chou En-Lai maneuvering to contain Mao’s power-mad wife, Chiang Ch’ing. Nixon’s self-doubt is well captured; Pat’s naivete strangely expanded to overshadow the entire opera apparently at the cost of Kissinger’s role; and Chou En-Lai is given the last word, wondering—as Kissinger mumbles—whether any of what they do will matter.
Like Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 Three-Penny Opera, NIC is a propaganda piece. But where Brecht was a doctrinaire Marxist critiquing Capitalism, NIC reflects a different era, being an expression of the 1980’s when Marxism was jettisoned for the new Political Correctness with all its imaginings and indifference to scientific and historical facts. Still, lacking popular songs such as Mack the Knife which kept Three-Penny Opera alive for decades, NIC may not have the same staying power, appealing as it does primarily to historians and intellectuals. Worth seeing, and worth seeing more than once, if only to witness the strange marrying of high-brow artistry with low-brow political fanaticism. —Glenn Lazar Roberts for Sirius Reviews.