Political Icons on Stage: Nixon in China at the Met

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Nixon (James Maddalena), Mao (Robert Brubaker), Chou En-lai (Russell Braun) and Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly) share a toast.

Nixon (James Maddalena), Mao (Robert Brubaker), Chou En-lai (Russell Braun) and Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly) share a toast.

The Metropolitan Opera
Saturday, February 5, 2011.

John Adams – conductor
Peter Sellars – director

James Maddalena – Richard Nixon
Janis Kelly – Pat Nixon
Robert Brubaker – Mao Tse-tung
Russell Braun – Chou En-lai
Richard Paul Fink – Henry Kissinger
Kathleen Kim – Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao)

Richard Nixon is an unlikely operatic protagonist. Surly and inscrutable, he stands outside a world of lyricism and emotional disclosure. His first stage entrance in Nixon in China is appropriately ironic, as the Spirit of ‘76 descends in life-sized proportions with impossible physics from straight above like a spacecraft. President Nixon had indeed stepped into another world when he visited Communist China in 1972, but in the 1987 opera collaboration by composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and choreographer Mark Morris, his dramatic journey ventures well beyond historic cultural diplomacy. Nixon’s first steps into China are also his first steps onto the operatic stage, and the parallel journey that unfolds alongside the cultural disorientation of an American in Maoist China circumnavigates the territory of opera itself, through storytelling that is as self-conscious and historically conscientious as its uneasy protagonist.

The president and first lady arrive in the Met's production of Nixon in China.

The president and first lady arrive in China.

Shouldering the role of Nixon with little sign of unease, however, was James Maddalena in his Met debut, who brilliantly inhabited the President with a vocal style somewhere between natural lyricism and labored song. Maddalena originated the role for the work’s premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1987, and almost two and a half decades later, as the 57-year-old baritone nears the age of Nixon at the time of the visit, there remains unwavering dignity and intelligence in his portrayal, beginning with Nixon’s first awkward utterances. Disembarking from his plane to heroic orchestral fanfare, Nixon is asked by Premier Chou En-lai whether the flight was smooth. Nixon replies, “Oh yes, smoother than usual I guess” with an exaggerated melisma on “smoother” that descends over a run-on chain of arpeggiated octaves like a skittish first stab at virtuosity. Maddalena conveyed all this with spellbound certitude, however, even showing Nixon to be surprised and slightly mortified by his vocal display of bravado.

The flight was smooth — Nixon arrives in China, 1972.

The flight was smooth — Nixon arrives in China, 1972.

Before long, Nixon abruptly launched into his first aria in pulsating cut time while greeting other dignitaries on the tarmac. “News!” begins from nowhere, and while the aria functions to illumine Nixon’s emotional state, the temporal lurch signifies an unsettling incongruity between his inner fantasies and reality. The aria starts like a stutter of nervous excitement as Nixon iterates “news” over a dozen times in the rhythm of a train engine gathering steam, before declaring his visions of political grandeur: “When I shook hands with Chou En-lai on this bare field outside Peking just now, the whole world was listening!” Adams introduces a percussive, rhythmic leitmotif with the aria that evokes the snapping of cameras, the clicking of telegraphs, and the pecking of typewriters. The leitmotif is the soundtrack in Nixon’s mind, the seductive sounds of media and history recording his every move, which re-emerges at later moments to signify his acute media awareness, as in the banquet scene.

The collaborators of Nixon in China conceived of their characters as decidedly “heroic” for a heroic moment in Sino-American relations, but heroism for Nixon can only be tragic with the specter of Watergate. Nixon had been taping conversations within his administration for over a year by the time of his visit to China in February 1972, and with the scandal making news that summer, the opera does a fair amount to foreshadow Nixon’s fate and public image. The giant elephant paraded in Act II, scene 1 literally shows us the elephant in the room. More subtly, “News!” featured Nixon singing rhapsodically about his place in “history” while Goodman’s libretto emphasizes ““hisss-tory” in the score. Transformed by minimalism’s repetitive play, “hiss” emerges as a simultaneous subversion and expansion of the word.

Nixon and an elephant, China, 1972.

Nixon and an elephant, China, 1972.

Maddalena’s portrayal showed that much of Nixon’s struggle to find proper operatic expression derived from his character’s misuse of the stage as a bully pulpit for exhortation and self-promotion rather than for introspection and catharsis. Throughout most of the night, Maddalena gazed intently into an imagined camera in the distance, gesticulating emphatically with his hands. Only in the privacy of his bedroom, away from the media eye, did an alternate persona emerge. The multiple bedroom scenes and the Act III finale featuring the full ensemble in beds are as central to Nixon in China as the scenes built around the famous, iconic images lodged in America’s collective memory: the handshake of the President and Premier at Peking Airport, Nixon alongside Mao in his study, the extravagant banquet, and Pat Nixon’s sightseeing tour. The spectacle of these iconic scenes in Nixon in China seemed provocations to search beyond the surface of the familiar. In other words, we may know the images, but not the sounds.

Nixon’s encounter with Mao is the celebrated image from the visit, for instance, but their meeting in Act I, scene 2 demonstrates a failure of communication when translated into sound. Ample statements lead nowhere between Chairman Mao, President Nixon, Premier Chou, and Secretary Kissinger. When Nixon attempts to steer conversation to Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan, Mao dismisses it: “Save that for the Premier. My business is philosophy.” The overlapping banter that began the scene becomes a monologue for Mao, sung with high gusto by Robert Brubaker but without as much thought to conveying the Chairman’s likeness, interspersed with long pauses and Mao’s lapses into sleep. Kissinger simply repeats, “I’m lost” while Nixon tries to stay apace with the 78-year-old Chairman’s statements and non-sequiturs, dropping allusions to Confucius, the Ming Tombs, and the “leap forward” with the determination of an incumbent whose campaign would benefit from a diplomatic coup. Nixon’s most lyrical moment, “Fathers and sons, let us join hands” fails to resonate, however, and Mao and his secretaries chant indignantly, “Founders come first, then profiters.” Where Nixon waxes poetic (“History is our mother”), Mao tends toward slang (“History is a sow”). Mao’s three female secretaries surround him from behind and pantomime in unison while singing. Their mechanical motions surely served a higher purpose in Sellars’s theatrical vision, perhaps along the lines of the three Rhinemaidens and Norns of Wagner’s Ring, but in the dramatic stillness of the scene, their busy movements, lacking in synchronicity, were a distraction. To be clear, the opera is neither a transcript of history nor a fabrication, but instead a poetic libretto drawn from memoirs, letters, news stories, and interviews. Adams has emphasized that almost nothing in the opera is invented.

Mao (Robert Brubaker), Nixon (James Maddalena) and Mao's dancing secretaries.

Mao (Robert Brubaker), Nixon (James Maddalena) and Mao's dancing secretaries.

I doubt I was alone among Met operagoers in hoping for some presidential grandstanding by the time of Nixon’s banquet toast in Act I, scene 3. Surely this was the moment when our former president would dominate the spotlight with a rousing oration. In the face of a rapt audience, however, Maddalena chose consistency of character over audience gratification, making the point, perhaps, that banal actuality pales against media hyperreality. Nixon’s toast revived the same pulsating leitmotif of “News!” as well as familiar thoughts: “The whole world watches and listens.” With the declamation of a syllabic recitative rather than a florid aria, Nixon’s remarks were cut short by interjections of “Cheers!” by banquet guests. He silences the crowd, however, to make a rather spectacular admission: “I opposed China. I was wrong.” Lip service or not, the statement was drowned out by a boisterous crowd intoxicated by red-tinted liquor, closing the scene. Before Nixon’s speech, Chou En-lai had made an eloquent toast, melodically supple and visionary in text. Chou’s aria was a hard act to follow, and neither Adams nor Goodman made Nixon’s task any easier. If Nixon is the psychological center of the opera, then Chou is its dramatic center, even physically placed center-stage in most scenes, and succeeding vocally and dramatically where Nixon does not. Russell Braun commanded the stage as Premier Chou, and his toast was the lyrical high point of the night. Braun executed his broad, arching lines with the virtuosity and magisterial stage presence that we expect of operatic heroes. Sellars had the house lights of the Met raised as Nixon and Chou delivered their orations facing the audience, and while the effect lacked the kind of creativity one expects from Sellars, it made its point that we are complicit banqueters and interpreters of history.

Nixon in China began as a concept by Sellars based on his readings of Mao and Kissinger, and particularly on a film version of the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women, one of eight propaganda plays sanctioned by Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Act II, scene 2 features the Nixons at a performance of The Red Detachment directed by Madame Mao, and the scene is the main expression of Sellars’ vision for the opera. A play-within-a-play may be a standard device for exposing what is unspoken and hidden in the drama proper, but in the hands of Sellars, whose directorial vision is based on distilling sub-textual dramatic content for modern audiences, the scene is a key moment that addresses the blurred distinction between drama and history. The Red Detachment is the story of Wu Ching-hua, a peasant girl imprisoned with other families for not meeting the rent of the regional lord. She rises up and flees her tyrannical captor Lao Szu. He and his mercenaries pursue her but nature intervenes with a storm and they stop short of beating Ching-hua to death to escape its force. Music straight out of a Wagnerian transformation scene emerges as Hung Chang-ching, the head of the Red Women’s Militia, stumbles upon Ching-hua. She joins the revolutionary army and seeks vengeance on Lao Szu for the plight of her people. Richard Paul Fink showed a gamely embrace of the cruel feudal lord as a thinly veiled Kissinger, swiftly somersaulting and wielding weaponry in the physically demanding part. The dancers stood out for their crisp execution of Morris’s riveting choreography, particularly the lead, Haruno Yamazaki.

With romance, oppression, vengeance, and nature’s intervention encapsulated in a 20-minute scene, The Red Detachment came closer to traditional opera than the opera proper. At times, the ballet had the levity of an entr’acte but more often served as a grim reminder of China’s turbulent history and widespread persecutions under Mao and Madame Mao (Nixon in China remains banned in China). The opera proper, in contrast, as confined to the meeting rooms, banquet halls, and select tour sights of the Nixon visit. Thus, when Mrs. Nixon attends The Red Detachment, she is outraged by China’s other side, and her interjections serve as imperatives to the opera spectator: “Just look at this!” and “They can’t do that!” She soon charges the stage, confusing art for reality. Pat Nixon is central to the storytelling of the ballet, which unfolds in dialogue with the opera. In fact, most of Act II seems told from her point of view such that Nixon in China may well refer to the other Nixon of the opera. Before the Act II curtain went up, she appeared asleep on a bed at the foot of the curtain, waking in a dreamy state as the music began. The image of her on the bed suggested resignation about a life in politics, as her aria “This is prophetic!” conveyed: “Why regret life which is so much like a dream?” Likewise, the unfamiliar vision of the First Lady in bed conveyed our imaginings of her and her historical context. Janis Kelly captured the full range of these emotions effortlessly. The Met audience found Mrs. Nixon’s reactions to the ballet endearing and amusing, but the parody raised more serious issues about interpretive truths, cultural relativism, and right and wrong. Acting on a similar indistinction between art and reality as the First Lady, Madame Mao also charges the stage, in her case to rebuke Ching-hua for not killing Lao Szu. Her strident coloratura aria, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” sung with both exhilarating brashness and silvery delicacy by Kathleen Kim, was comparable to the President’s opening aria that interrupted the action for personal exultation. Which stage Madame Mao occupied by the end of her ballet production, hers or ours, was rightly indistinguishable.

In the final act, the opera seemed already to be fading out of memory. Act III brought us into the bedrooms of its characters: Mr. and Mrs. Nixon, Kissinger, Chou, Mao and Madame Mao. The vigor of the beginning was now a hazy recollection as each character retired to their chambers beleaguered by regret, apprehension, and the past (Nixon lingers on his naval days), sung in an ensemble number with moments of foxtrot dance by the Chairman and Madame as well as by the revolutionary couple from the ballet in the background. The incursion into their private lives, which was at times exposed in salacious detail, was a commentary on the invasive nature of media culture, opera inevitably included. Nixon had remarked in Mao’s study, “It’s like a dream” and indeed by the end lying in bed emerges as a symbol of the historical imagination.

Adams is a master orchestrator and his skill was on stunning display throughout Nixon in China, for which he was present to conduct all six Met performances. Even vocal parts were loomed into the greater whole of the orchestral texture to create a true ensemble effect. The strings of Adams’s ensemble often played like a rhythm section led by intricate and exposed figurations in the winds and brass, a contrast from the lush orchestration of Doctor Atomic (2005), which was as stunning to hear when Adams made his 2008 Met debut. Moreover, to the credit of the collaborators of Nixon in China, and Adams especially, exoticism is largely kept at bay in the opera, in spite of its setting and minimalism’s roots in the static sonorities and rhythmic cycles of Asian traditional music. There are no gongs or oriental riffs but an occasional chinoiserie—fourth sonorities, hints of pentatonicism, and temple blocks—that are fleeting and as much a part of Adams’s polystylistic arsenal for Nixon in China as big band, Stravinsky, and Wagner. Even in sound, China of the Far East is less of an exotic entity than Richard Nixon, who emerges as the outsider of his own opera.

Nixon in China is not an opera of life-shattering revelation or profound emotion, and it can vex the operagoer at times by defying expectations about the protagonist and the operatic medium. Nixon in opera is, perhaps, the opera’s biggest epiphany, as stunning of an idea as Nixon in China was in 1972. Undertaking his first opera in 1987, Adams had only Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1976) as his primary model (even their titles are comparable), and now five more operas l ater, Nixon in China, along with The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), are the most performed operas of recent decades. The San Francisco Opera will bring the opera to Adams’s residential city in 2012 with a new staging by Michael Cavanagh.

Nixon tours the Great Wall of China, 1972.

Nixon tours the Great Wall of China, 1972.


About the author

Rebecca Y. Kim

Rebecca earned her doctorate in musicology at Columbia University with a dissertation on John Cage. She has taught at Williams College, Fordham University, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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