12 February 2011: Adams, Nixon in China

Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. Conducted by the composer, John Adams. Production, Peter Sellars; set design, Adrianne Lobel; costumes, Dunya Ramicova; Lighting, James F. Ingalls; choreography, Mark Morris. Chiang Ch’ing, Kathleen Kim; Pat Nixon, Janis Kelly; Mao Tse-tung, Robert Brubaker; Chou En-lai, Russell Braun; Richard Nixon, James Maddelena; Henry Kissinger, Richard Paul Fink

I was prevented by the press of other work from writing up this opera until almost two weeks after the date. I’m sorry that some of the details of this intense experience have fled my mind. All the same, this is a remarkable work, in a remarkable production. It was somehow especially interesting that the composer of the opera was himself conducting it. One had the sense that the entire production was, so to speak, issuing from his mind. Everything seemed to be on track, in tune. And that is saying a good deal, considering the kind of music that Adams writes, and considering also the momentous historical event that the opera commemorates, and reexamines.

This is an historical opera, of course, but unlike most historical operas, which tend to generalize historical moments, this one begins on an exact date: Monday, 21 February 1972. On this fateful morning, at an airfield outside Peking, President Nixon and his entourage arrive and disembark. They are met by Premiere Chou En-lai and a small group of officials. The two shake hands. And so Nixon’s visit begins on a propitious note. An hour later, Nixon has a meeting with Chairman Mao, and there follows a great banquet and many toasts. Thus, the first of three acts. There are three scenes in that act, each the subject of full-stage setting on the great stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The second act is taken up with touring and entertainment. In the first scene Pat Nixon tours the Peking glass factory and other show places, the pride of the Chinese state. That evening, the Nixons attend a performance of a ballet devised by Mao’s wife, called The Red Detachment of Women. As the plot summary explains, “The ballet entwines ideological rectitude with Hollywood-style emotion.”

Here we are presented with the deep chasm that yawns between the Chinese and the Americans, who are surprisingly unsophisticated about what this ballet about a downtrodden peasant girl is supposed to mean. Pat Nixon, who appears unable to tell the difference between a stage play (or ballet) and real life, is shocked and horrified by the treatment the dancer receives, and they are drawn awkwardly and in an embarrassing way into the action itself. This is not exactly what the wife of Chairman Mao had in mind, and she sings, aggressively and offensively, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” with full choral backing. This is a kind of high point, thematically speaking, of the opera, and the music truly pulls out all the stops. But we are left at the same time with an impression of the Nixons as insufficiently knowing, unsophisticated, and awkward in the midst of unfamiliar surroundings and hostile ideas.

Act III shows us the last evening in Peking. The pomp and circumstance of the second act are now all behind us, and the main players return to the solitude of their bedrooms. This is represented on stage as a kind of unit setting, devised by Peter Sellars as a long row of single beds, almost dormitory-style; the action shifts from one bed, and thus from one bedroom, to another, as each of the major players, as couples, reflect upon the visit, reminisce about their earlier lives and the struggles that they had to endure, and so one by one show us the private persons behind the public personalities that have been on show up until now.

It is ironic that the one credit that is left off the handout that comes to the operagoer is that of the librettist, Alice Goodman (not included on the handout supplied by the Met!). It is an unusually good, impressively written, verbally quite poetic script, and yet in one respect an unusually biased story that she put into the hands of the composer. It is of course the direct opposite of a propaganda piece: no extolling here of the wonderful breakthrough of the Nixon administration in opening the gates to China. Rather, it is to a significant extent an exploration of the personal characters of the chief players in this extraordinary public event. To my mind, the most brilliant part of it is the long sequence in the second act in which Pat Nixon, without benefit, doubtful though it might be, of the companionship and tutelage of her husband the president, takes a tour essentially by herself. True, she is constantly accompanied by three women who are obviously instructed to make sure that she is safe and, more importantly, that she does not stray from the rigidly established route. But this does not stop her from an extended, thoughtful rumination over her own personal history. The librettist takes this opportunity to allow Pat Nixon to sing most feelingly about what she loves about her home country. She tells us that she was born into near-poverty, and only by good fortune was able to raise herself from that low birth and accede to a position of high prestige that has resulted, ironically, in developing deep anxiety and chronic unhappiness in her. The soprano cast in this role, Janis Kelly, sang this long aria most sympathetically and beautifully, almost alone on a huge stage depicting a sombre, grey day with light snow falling. Let me add that, from a musical point of view, it also illustrates how much variety of tone, timbre, volume, and orchestral ensemble work there is in the opera overall.

But I am not through with my critique of the libretto. The one false note, and it is a major one, is the characterization of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, as Nixon’s right-hand man, was of course included in the visiting party. He seems to play, up to a certain point, a relatively minor role, considering his political importance. We almost have to remind ourselves at the banquet that ends Act I of who he is. But once we get to Act II and the ballet in the second scene, a Kissinger look-alike (sung by the same singer, Richard Paul Fink) with villainous, bushy-eyed makeup and bright-eyed, lecherous expression emerges as the evil industrialist. He behaves in so egregiously offensive a way that we cannot help but hate and despise him. Remarkably, no one recognizes him as an alter-ego Kissinger except, of course, the entire audience. Some of us laughed knowingly at first, but it soon became deeply distasteful and came close to ruining what was aesthetically a marvelously entertaining ballet, at the same time illustrative of the very kinds of political difference that Nixon — a dyed in the wool anti-Communist — went to China to challenge.

There was also, in this sequence, a kind of aesthetic confusion that seemed ungainly. I have to hold both the librettist and John Adams himself responsible for this grotesque aberration, since the librettist could not have succeeded with it had it not been for Adams’s decision to go along with it. And I believe I need to add the name of Peter Sellars to the list of culpable persons here, since it was the director who called for or at least approved the costume, the makeup, and the behavior that presented this ridiculous distortion of a statesman whose conservative credentials were on view, at home and abroad, and detested by some segments of the electorate but whose realistic views of nations hostile to the United States were often on the mark, like it or not. A fourth artistic contributor here, Mark Morris, the choreographer, offered some remarkably fast paced and clear dance sequences, some of which included the Kissinger character, but I feel sure that Morris was taking his cues from the Überregisseur Peter Sellars. For that matter, in the bedroom scenes that close the opera, there is a good bit of genital groping and even simulated cunnilingus that may have been meant to illustrate certain unflattering human tendencies but that ended up seeming gratuitous , unnecessary, and distracting. This is the downside, I fear, of Sellars’s brilliant, unconventional, defiant staging, which allows him to make his unique mark in the theatre of today but which sometimes tells us more about him than about the work he is mounting so brilliantly.

Back to the music. Well into Act I I thought I was not going to like this music. I am not a great fan of the kind of melody-less, repetitive music that I believe I am supposed to call minimalist, emanating from the school of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and so on. I believe it is fair to say that I have come a long way towards accepting this music, even as Philip Glass himself has progressed over the years in developing a more sophisticated, broadly based compositional style. From what I have heard by John Adams I think I have liked Adams better than Glass from an early point. It is sometimes as full-throated an ensemble as I am able to tolerate. But then, as in this opera, the tone or the mood shifts, the dramatic action modulates in some new direction, and the music both leads and follows in a wonderfully comprehensive, all-embracing way. Adams does nothing by halves. Evidently he is a deceptively mild-mannered composer who absolutely throws himself into the creative process whereby he identifies, explores, and magnifies human emotion with wonderful effect. I surprise myself by uttering such superlatives about this kind of music. But the fact is I have come to feel almost like a convert, wondering whether it has just been me who couldn’t appreciate the actual genuine newness of this style or whether maturing composers have been able to put together music that can reach me in a fuller, more authentic way.

I leave the answer to that question for another occasion. This restaging of the original production, which I think first was shown at the Dallas Opera a decade or more ago, is, despite its knee-jerk, high-minded disdain for one of the most complex political characters to emerge in the Cold War era, a triumphant rendering of an unquestioned masterpiece. It is already proclaimed to be a classic, and with much justice.

I neglected to mention that the singer who portrays the title character, James Maddalena, was the Nixon in the original production and has continued to sing the role dozens of times, to the mutual advantage of him and the production. He has the advantage of looking vaguely like Nixon, with his receding hair, though otherwise is quite different from him. What he has done, however, is to master the character as well as the singing role, to such a depth that he is fully convincing and, at times, moving in the same extraordinarily unintentional way that Nixon himself was. One has the impression that this president thought he knew himself very well, but was utterly mistaken in that belief. The librettist has given us an officially competent and yet deeply anxious man for whom nothing is easy; a man with extraordinary willpower but also with a rigid mind set that makes him a formidable and at times almost repulsive person.

When we turn at last to Act III and encounter Nixon the private man, we find that what we have seen in earlier acts has been an extraordinarily self-protective facade that masks a personality in some considerable disarray. He has an aria here in which he reminds his wife (who needs no reminding) of the horrendous experiences he had on a South Pacific island in World War II, particularly one night when he fully expected to die, a victim of Japanese bombs. There is a great part of him that wishes he had been killed that night. Instead, he has had to soldier on, an unhappy survivor who lives on unhappily, and making those around him unhappy as well. It is a moving moment, and James Maddalena makes the most of it — as does Janis Kelly — as they both do with these two deeply absorbing roles overall.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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