Coda: Revisiting Nixon in China
© Beth Bergman 2013
It was a blast from the past, and I wasn't sure how to respond. I'm talking about John Adams's innovative opera Nixon in China, originally produced at Houston Grand Opera in 1987 — a work that has, in the past quarter-century, taken on a life of its own. Nixon has benefited from the continuing attention of its creators — director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman and various cast members mightily dedicated to the production — and also from intermittent institutional support. In performances around the world, including two different stagings in Paris, San Francisco and Kansas City last year alone, Nixon has won new audiences wherever it has gone. Although I'd been hearing about it for years, I'd never seen it before, having missed the mounting of Sellars's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music six weeks after the premiere. Now I alternated between disbelief and delight as I watched a recording, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, of the Metropolitan Opera's sleek 2011 revival of the historical event that becomes by degrees a mystical reverie.
When Nixon was in the White House, c. 1972, many of my Harvard classmates and I were vigorously protesting his policies regarding the conduct of the war in Vietnam and the secret war in Cambodia. Mao, meanwhile, seemed to us a benign and fantastic creature, like a float in the Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, high above the political fray. (How little we knew!) Things got even worse for Nixon as the shadow of the Watergate scandal — outside the framework of this opera but ever present in the minds of its spectators — spread across the land. Nixon in China has to contend with an audience that already knows the subject inside out and holds strong opinions about it. Even now, after tempers have cooled and efforts have been made to reassess Nixon's conduct, he remains the only American president ever to resign from the office.
From the moment Nixon in China opens, all these constructs are cast aside. Air Force One touches down onstage, as impressive a piece of theatrical legedermain as any collapsing bridge or burning castle, and Adams's music, James Maddalena's Nixon and the admirably restrained sets combine to cast a spell all their own. I was surprised by the portrayal of Nixon — who emerges as a peculiar blend of pragmatism and tentative idealism, as if trying to disarm the demons he summoned in his quest for power — and his wife, Pat, who is gently mocked but also touchingly evoked by Janis Kelly's nuanced performance. This is not an impersonation; those looking for the infamous Nixonian tics — the glowering demeanor, the stiff gait, the insipid sincerity, the garrulousness captured on the Watergate tapes — won't find them here. Maddalena conjures a troubled, questing Nixon, not the anxious figure cowering under television lights, and the portrayal serves its transcendent purposes, rather than reminding the audiences of the political figure they thought they knew. The wisdom of this approach becomes ever more rewarding as the opera depicts the banquets, the parleys with Chou En-Lai and Nixon's encounter with Mao himself. Only Henry Kissinger (Kissinger in an opera?) comes off as a caricature. "You'd never think to look at him that he's James Bond," Nixon intones.
Yet this is not an opera about political events in the way that Giuseppe Verdi or another engagé composer might have portrayed them; it's about encountering the Other, mutual incomprehension and semiotics. For Nixon's Chinese hosts, the world is indeed a very different place, hovering in a skillfully evoked scenic twilight of reality and fantasy, and the opera projects incomprehensible forces that baffle and intrigue our literal-minded, bumbling American president and his bewildered wife. Nixon onstage is as doomed as he was in real life; and Adams and Sellars try mightily to elevate him to a figure of cosmic, tragic proportions, but they don't quite get there. And many a time Mao threatens to steal the show: how could he not? The creators of this work have spoken about the gradual change in their portrayal of Mao over the years as ever darker facts about his reign of terror and the Cultural Revolution have emerged, and in his gyrating, scowling, lecherous behavior, the opera's Mao becomes truly alarming. In a bizarre echo of William Jennings Bryan's inflammatory speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention (at least, I think that's what Adams and his librettist have in mind), he worries that the Americans will "crucify us on a cross of usury." Why would Mao, an avowed atheist, employ this Biblical imagery, identified with Bryan? Later on, a deranged Mao insists that "history is a dirty sow," while Nixon, as the uncertain voice of moderation, or even reason, describes history as "our mother." It's the same idea, but more benign, more optimistic, more American. As a biographer and historian, I came to appreciate this opera as an epic portrayal of folly, of people who desperately wish to do momentous things but have no idea how to accomplish their grandiose aims and instead carry out a masquerade that veers from desperation to absurdity.
So, does Nixon in China ultimately redeem its beleaguered protagonist? Not exactly, but it does make audiences reexamine his legacy. I doubt anyone's going to hiss Nixon as the mustache-twirling villain of the piece. Instead of the political gargoyle of memory, he becomes an unlikely pioneer — I would almost say a visionary, but I can't quite go that far — who prodded the United States to deal with the giant mystery that was Mao.
"This country is so beautiful," the chorus sings, "one day you will see it all." When I finally did see China for myself, it was beautiful, of course. How unsettling to imagine that Nixon had led the way.
LAURENCE BERGREEN is the author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe and Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu.
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