The Metropolitan Opera’s HD re-broadcast of the most recent in its series of simulcasts is coming up tonight, and anyone interested in either contemporary music or global power politics may want to clear the evening’s calendar for the presentation of this wonderful new production of one of the 20th century’s great operas.
Nixon in China, with its thrilling score by John Adams (who conducts), libretto by poet Alice Goodman, choreography by Mark Morris and staging by Peter Sellars (whom many call a genius), is a rich experience.
Sellars also directed the broadcast, and his acumen and timing make the HD experience at least as satisfying as being there. The cameras allow you to see things you would not see from the best seat in the house, and under the control of the director who has brought the opera to life on many stages since its 1987 premiere (at the Houston Grand Opera), they glide and zoom and switch in flawless concord with the action and emotion.
It is hard to imagine now, but in 1987, we in the United States did not live amid a flood of items marked “Made in China.” It was still only a trickle. And in 1973, when then-President Richard M. Nixon made his state visit to Cold War enemy country, China and its products were alien and rare to us. Nixon’s visit opened the way to US-China trade, with results that no one foresaw, except perhaps Chairman Mao. The opera examines the significance of this highly theatrical political event, and questions, rather gently, whether or not it was a good thing.
Where is the drama, you may ask, how can there be enough dramatic tension to keep you riveted to your seat and make the time (nearly four hours) fly by?
First, it is in the music. Adams makes beautiful melodies and catches them in meshy layers of aural texture that shimmer with dozens of changes of tempo. The many rhythms and repetitions coil tighter and tighter on themselves, portentous of shift and change, driving the sense of historical importance, while the melodies and motifs remind us that these historical figures are humans, full of pride and hubris, fear and uncertainty, trickery and honor and hope.
The beautiful writing keeps both the frail humanity of the characters—so small on the world stage—and their historical indelibility ever before us, and the staging (and camera work) plays off individual action and massed movement in a highly dramatic manner.
Madame Mao, or Chiang Ch’ing, is appropriately frightening as sung by Kathleen Kim. You can practically see the cadres falling under the martial scythe of her voice, and when she vamps the aged Mao (Robert Brubaker), reminding him of how she first came to him as a young starlet, it may make your skin crawl. Henry Kissinger (sung by Richard Paul Fink) produces a similar response, although his is more of a caricature than a characterization.
To my mind, the most memorable and engaging character of both the opera and the history is Chou En-lai (more commonly rendered today as Zhou Enlai). Chou has, along with Mao, come through every twist and turn of the great changes in China, and he has survived even the machinations of Madame Mao and her gang. Now he is very ill with pancreatic cancer, still bold but less certain—was it the right move at the right time to bring China out of isolation and into uneasy congress with her great enemy? Russell Braun’s beautiful voice asks himself as he mulls in solitude after the banqueting ends, and his question in the final aria lingers with us as we daily pour our gold into China’s lap:
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy
Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.
Click here to print out a cast sheet and synopsis before the opera. Click here for the Met's web page devoted to this production.