“Nixon in China,” in New York & New Haven, and on my mind

This Last week, I went to the Met to see Nixon in China with one of my buddies from the Arts Journalism Institute, and then on Saturday I watched the live HD broadcast. And now I keep listening to the opera, keeping its characters and vocal lines lines and orchestral colors in my head.

The Nixons, as played by Janis Kelly and James Maddalena.

I’ve wanted to write about it, but I haven’t known what to say. There’s the opera itself, and then there are all the conversations swirling around about it. And most of the conversations seem to take for granted that it’s an important opera, and now that it’s making its Met premiere, it has arrived. But I’m leaving the meta-conversation for later.

After seeing the opera at the Met, I thought, “Okay. It’s good. It’s interesting. I’m glad I saw it.” The orchestra sounded amazing: those tone colors! And the way the colors and rhythms and motives shift and transform in Adams’s hands! The singing was wonderful, but the balance was really off, at least from where I sat. It was thought-provoking, funny, and puzzling. I went home not knowing what to make of it.

And then I went to the broadcast, which was entirely different. The close-ups showed me elements of the action that I just couldn’t see from way up in the balcony. The sound wasn’t anything like live, but it was pretty decent, and at least I could hear James Maddalena (Nixon). Best of all, I could see how fabulous the acting was. Maddalena embodies the role. Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon – who knew I’d ever be so in love with Pat Nixon?). Russell Braun (Chou En-lai). Robert Brubaker (Mao), though I was able to see more of him live because of the size of his actions.

With too many close-ups, though, you lose the sense of what’s happening on the entire stage. You don’t know how or when a character moved from one place to another, or even where they are in relation to anyone else. Especially in the last scene, I knew there were scandalous things taking place on stage that we weren’t seeing.

But it was great to see facial expressions. I loved seeing Pat Nixon push away the gun and hand Nixon the glass of juice to give to the dancer in red. I loved that the translator refused to translate when Nixon said, “I opposed China,” but a moment later was perfectly happy to translate his next line, “I was wrong.”

Yet this is also one of those moments that makes me wonder: why did Alice Goodman put those lines in the libretto? Where and how did the creative team decide when to represent actual events and when to venture into historical fiction?

When Peter Sellars initially shared his idea to write an opera on the subject of Nixon in China, John Adams apparently needed some convincing. According to the Met’s notes: “Adams’s skepticism anticipated a common early critical reaction, which found it difficult to perceive anything beyond a politically correct cartoon within a scenario featuring Nixon as an operatic protagonist.”

It’s not that the opera is deadly serious in explicating this moment in history. It toys with both parody and seriousness. The American plane flying into place is unapologetically cartoonish. But Nixon stepping off the plane is another kind of moment. What was he thinking then? What would this symbolic step bring for him and for his country?

Another example: the ballet-within-the-opera. The whipping in the ballet is disturbing, and Pat Nixon is so anxious for the dancer that she jumps in and takes the dancer into her arms. Did that really happen? Of course not. But her reaction both amplifies and diffuses the tension, making the moment into something more than history.

I need to get out some of my quibbles.

  • Some of the choreography for Mao’s three assistants just doesn’t work: they’re not quite in sync, and the faster their hands move, the more the movement comes off as contrived and awkward.
  • The wigs needed more variety. For chorus members playing random Chinese women, there seemed to be exactly three hairstyles: a bob with bangs, a bob without bangs, and a long braid coming out from under a hat. Too cookie-cutter, in my opinion.
  • The pig! They had a horse for one scene in Boris Godunov but couldn’t get a real pig? Or they couldn’t even make it look halfway realistic? It had the sheen of tiny toy farm animals. At least put some hair on the poor creature and make it, well, not shiny.
  • Live at the Met, the balance was really off. I wasn’t kidding when I said I couldn’t hear Maddalena some of the time, literally couldn’t hear him. Other voices, too, often got lost. If you’re going to amplify your musical forces, you’ve got the perfect opportunity to balance them. Don’t screw it up.

I kept realizing that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Political power comes and goes. As Nixon sings, “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” Do we ever know? Vapidity and substance vie with each other in perpetuity. Politicians obsess over the news. Even fashion returns: Pat Nixon’s dress for the banquet was frighteningly similar to the one I had on.

And this is what makes the opera not only work, but wedge itself into memory.

As the Met notes in the program: “Adams came to realize that what Sellars had in mind touched on a defining moment of American identity.” And not just a moment, I would argue, but a lasting element of American identity.”

And being about identity, this opera is ultimately about people. Pat Nixon is heartbreaking. Chou En-Lai is both dignified and poignant. The Maos, as characters, can be fascinating as well as chilling. Kissinger – well, I don’t really know what to make of his character. But anyway.

Anne Midgette wrote in her review:

Nixon in China doesn’t present the historical Nixon as such: his epochal trip to China in 1972 becomes an allegory of alienation and the difficulties of communication.

In the last scene, everyone feels completely alone. Couples talk past each other. Leaders reflect on their personal lives rather than their public accomplishments. Everyone’s desperate for intimacy: just look at all the sex happening onstage. And yet the characters shrug off real contact, because it’s just too painful.

At one point, Nixon sings, “America is good at heart.” What a quaint notion, I thought! And then: does the fact that this line sounds quaint means it’s false? What does it say about a person’s politics, or faith, or outlook on the world, to think that America is good at heart, or that it’s not?

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