Opera is an anachronism. It was an anachronism from the moment it was invented—wasn't it?—the last gasp of the neoclassical tendencies of the Renaissance, as an attempt to revive the musical dramas of antiquity, and it's even more of an aesthetic archaism today, now it that exists almost entirely as a repertory of 200-year-old "classics."
So, yes, that's the "joke" of Nixon in China, the opera by composer/librettist/director team John Adams, Alice Goodman and Peter Sellars, that you've got characters from the age of television, Richard and Patricia Nixon, stepping out of a flat 747 and singing rhymed couplets with vocal techniques invented to sing the music of composers born in 1813. But it's a lot more than that, too.
It was all Sellars's idea—he hand-picked Goodman, a former student of his, and had to talk Adams into it, convince him that the "joke" was not all there was to the project. Aside from his Adams collabos, his most famous (though far from only) ventures have been stagings that transplant the settings of classical operas into the present day, and the critical resistance is usually predictable, and partly justified—attempts to make opera "relevant" to a contemporary audience can seem at once redundant ("Mozart's operas are immortal; they were never irrelevant, and require no updating!") and futile ("Is a Nozze di Figaro set in Trump Tower going to win over anybody who'd otherwise be watching reality TV?"). But insofar as there is ever a distinction between concept and content in a theatrical production—and a Sellars show may be keen to narrow the gap between the two—these objections respond only to the former, in the abstract, and not to the latter. Sellars' agenda is more nuanced than updating sets and costumes.
For instance, when he decided to stage Handel's oratorio Theodora, about the persecution of early Christians, Sellars was addressing a genre of musical drama that has no obvious analogue in contemporary culture. Oratorio tells a story without sets or costumes or even action, instead being a series of monologues and choruses—it's a presentational mode of drama, of the sort that has all but disappeared from popular entertainment in recent centuries.
But in translating Theodora to the operatic stage, Sellars dramatizes the Emperor's opening arias as a Presidential press conference, at which the Chief Executive promises to hunt down and torture the infidel, and the "audience" onstage responds with a chorus choreographed to look like a TV commercial, pointing to cans of diet soda when they get to the couplet about how "sweeter than the trumpet's sound / Their groans and cries are heard around!" Absurd, yes. (Or not? That actually sounds a lot like a few press conferences from the past decade or so.) But by connecting Handel's forms to contemporary politics, he demands that we reconsider the emotional stakes of what might—without his anachronistic touch—be merely beautiful. By reinventing the action in terms of television, he illuminates not only the politics of the drama, but also the politics of our age, the politics of the musical form, and the politics hardwired into our media.
For his first opera with John Adams, Nixon in China, Sellars proposed a subject that would run his anachronistic alchemy in reverse. In the first act, instead of turning the conventions of opera into the stuff of television, Sellars, Adams, and librettist Alice Goodman took a televised event and turned it into grand opera. All the conventions of grand opera are there: choruses, pageantry, down to the the drinking song that ends the first act and the ballet in the second. The libretto itself is in rhymed tetrameter. But while opera usually treats a familiar myth or historical subject, in place of the usual heroic tableaux—the death of Dido, the damnation of Faust—Nixon draws upon a new, different sort of cultural memory. What struck critics most at its first appearance, prompting many to dismiss the opera (as they would dismiss many of Sellars' stagings) as a facile postmodern gimmick, was the contemporaneity of its subject matter. That is, Nixon's visit to China not only had taken place within living memory, but Nixon himself was actually invited to the premiere (he declined), and most of the audience had probably witnessed many of the dramatized events on television at the moment they took place. The idea of an opera about the President, specifically about President Nixon, was a novelty—a joke—even if it was a good one.
Well, about twenty years later, the novelty is gone. Nixon is dead now, a whole generation of operagoers has been born since his trip to China—but the opera remains fundamentally relevant. Not only because it's well enough put together to stand up to two decades of close listening, but because its observations on the essentially changed nature of cultural memory in the age of television will remain timely as long as there's still some kind of TV.
In Thomas May's indispensible John Adams Reader, May asks Sellars about the label "CNN Opera," as it was applied to his and Adams' Death of Klinghoffer specifically and to their history operas in general. Sellars responds:
One of the most important reasons to do these operas was to say precisely that we aren't getting the actual history of our times. We are used to the media feeding frenzy, with the rush to judgment and the rush for the scoop, and then it all gets dropped. In the Age of Information we are strangely underinformed about what is going on and what is at stake—exactly because there's a historical blank for so many Americans. The way journalism has evolved context is not reported very deeply. [As artists] we have to make a structure which is context rich. Opera is able to go inside to a place where the headlines aren't going. The classic thing with Greek theater is that it's not, say in Oedipus Rex, about what does an exploding eyeball look like, but about why someone would dig out their own eyes. Whether it's about suicide bombers or 9/11 or any of these events that have happened to America, the question that is not allowed to be asked to this day is "Why would people do this?" That's the question, of course, that drama asks. Exactly to find what was not in the news, what was missing from the news: that's why we worked in this genre.The fact, in other words, that opera is out of step with our times is why it is absolutely essential.
Act One gives us, to a large extent, what has made it into the public record. While the President's entrance aria is an internal monologue, even that monologue is on the subject of outward appearances and public persona:
News has a kind of mysteryThe audience at the HD broadcast I attended chuckled at these lines:
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the world was listening.
…Though we spoke quietly
The eyes and eyes of history
Caught every gesture…
Transforming us as we, transfixed,
Millions more hear what we sayJohn Adams's opera, which he described as "a media event about a media event," had become a global satellite broadcast about a global satellite broadcast. (Note that the word "broadcast" is used precisely three times in Nixon, and only once does it refer to the act of transmitting a signal over the radio; the other two times, it uses the word's original meaning, the act of scattering seeds in every direction.)
through satellite technology
than ever heard a public speech
before. No one is out of touch
broadcast your message into space.
Act Two of the opera introduces another strategy essential to all Adams' stage works: the counterbalance of the Heroic, the Public, the Yang, by an equal and opposite force. The focus of the drama turns to Mrs. Nixon, the model First Lady on her seemingly inconsequential tour of the capitol, the opera becomes something very different.
"Mrs. Nixon went to look at the Summer Palace of the imperial Manchus in the western suburbs yesterday," reported the Times (in an article headed, "All Peking's a Stage"), "and as she passed through the Gates of Longevity and Goodwill she laughed and said, 'That's prophetic.'" Goodman spins Pat's soundbite into "This is prophetic," an aria that asks the audience to reconsider the monumental in intimate terms:
Let the expression on the faceThe aria signals a turn from the monumental to the intimate, and sure enough, the opera's heroic narrative begins to unravel. Chiang Ching—Madame Mao, the anti-Pat responsible for the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, presents her ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, and the characters in the opera soon find themselves unable to distinguish between this drama and their reality, as if all of Peking really were a stage, and the story of the opera suddenly veers off from the historical record.
Of the Statue of Liberty
Change just a little, let her see
What lies inland: across the plain
One man is marching—the Unknown
Soldier has risen from his tomb;
Let him be recognized at home.
The exploitative imperialist letch singing and dancing in Red Detachment bears, as Mrs. Nixon notes, a striking resemblance to Henry Kissinger, and is in fact played by the same singer; unable to bear suffering of the main character—a brutalized peasant girl—the First Lady drags her husband into the drama within the drama; a storm erupting within the ballet gets the onstage Nixons "sopping." With her appearance her at the midpoint of the opera, artist-tyrant Chiang has torn through both the art of politics and the politics of art to open a wound through which historical reality bleeds out, and when the prima ballerina misses her cue, Mme. Mao finally interrupts the action of the ballet with a literally show-stopping aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung" ("When I appear," she sings, "the people hang / Upon my words") as metadramatical chaos breaks out.
It's a perplexing scene, but if you're wondering why this half-hour metadrama has been interpolated into an opera about Richard Nixon, you've got it backwards. Before he proposed Nixon, Peter Sellars wanted to put on his own staging of The Red Detachment of Women. It was only after his failure to mount this Communist propaganda ballet during the Reagan years SOMEHOW FELL THROUGH that he asked John Adams to write this opera, and it remains, in some ways, its raison d'être, in the same way that the death of Siegfried is the reason for Das Rheingold. It's this insane, beautiful moment here…
When Act Three begins, the characters have retreated entirely into the private sphere—into dream and memory. This last act was actually written to depict the last banquet before the exhausted Nixons returned home to the States, but Sellars, in a typical move, restaged it into a literally private space, with twin beds instead of tables in order (among other things) to emphasize the scene's dreamlike qualities. The music is often hushed and sweet, rejecting the set pieces of the first two acts in favor of a through-composed score that weaves together all the characters' reflections on their respective lives and homelands.
Ultimately, this is the enterprise at the heart of Nixon—the artists were much more interested in allowing the men and women who took part in this meeting to plead their own cases lyrically and eloquently than in, say, punishing Mao for the brutality of his regime, or Nixon for the Vietnam in his past and the Watergate to come. Adams and Sellars went on to take the same strategy with all of their operas, and this is the form's greatest strength: not to document or narrate (text and photographs do that better), or even necessarily to "dramatize" in the conventional sense (don't the movies do that better?), but to allow each participant in the drama to express him/herself directly, fully and eloquently (only the operatic tradition offers arias, ensembles).
This means Alice Goodman has to hit a very tricky tone in her libretto, a combination of the long-lost art of high rhetoric with the sort of language a Dick Nixon might have used (astoundingly, the one F-bomb in the opera is not his), and she more than lives up to the challenge (as, I hope, you've noticed from the passages I've already quoted). But while the text is often lovely and smart in its lines and phrases and passages and particulars, what really amazed me on this listening was the overarching symbolic structures.
For instance: "The people are the heroes now," goes the piece's most famous couplet; "Behemoth pulls the peasant's plow," "Behemoth" here representing (among other things) the monstrous power of the state, and the inexorable force of history, harnessed—according to the Communist myth—in the service of the people. Think Thomas Hobbes too, of course: Behemoth and Leviathan go hand-in-hand (hoof-in-flipper?) in the Hebrew Bible.
But Behemoth (pictured) comes back—twice!—in the second act, in the form of the elephant sculptures Pat Nixon encounters on her tour. She does and doesn't recognize its significance:
This little elephant in glassThe audience laughs when Pat identifies the elephant with the GOP, and again when the chorus informs her proudly that the elephant is in fact just one of hundreds churned out by a factory. But this disconnect between her and her guides is Pat in a nutshell: the elephant is the Western symbol of memory (Pat's personal history), and the symbol of the GOP (Pat's personal America), she's right about that, but as she will again in "This Is Prophetic," her wishful thinking finds the personal in the monumental. To her, the individual is to be prized—to the Communists, what's great is not one handmade elephant but the ability to produce "hundreds every day." Like the "blind Brahmins" from the old parable of the elephant, the high brahmins of the Chinese and American diplomatic parties have both laid their hands on the same behemoth and mistaken it for two very different beasts.
brings back so many memories.
The symbol of our party, prize
of our success, our sacred cow
surrounded by blind Brahmins, slow
Musclebound, well-dressed, half-awake,
with Liberty upon her back.
Tell me, is it one of a kind?
In the opera's final act, there are several moments where the libretto obviously undermines the literal reality of Sellars's staging. Why is there a dance band in everybody's bedroom? How can Chou pass Pat a handkerchief, and give Kissinger directions to the bathroom? (DIGRESSION. How fantastic/insane is it that Peter Sellars went all Regietheater on HIS OWN OPERA, before even reached the stage? And then there were huge changes made to this act, or so I understand, between the beginning and end of its very first run—I can't say when it was added, but all kinds of crazy business was definitely inserted into this act between the 1987 broadcast from Houston and the 2011 broadcast from the Met. (In the other acts, the changes were mostly quite subtle.) A funeral procession brings the ailing Chou lilies, to foreshadow his death (the crackdown on mourning for Chou would prove to be the downfall of Chiang Ching and her Gang of Four); Mao's onstage jayo sesh with one of his secretaries was, I suspect, interpolated for recent productions, based on the scandalous 90s memoir of Mao's doctor.
(META-DIGRESSION. I've forgotten—was that Nancy T'ang (played by an appropriately funny and frightening Ginger Costa Jackson) with her hand on the Chairman's crotch? Please correct me. The scathing portrayal of T'ang (a.k.a. Tang Wensheng) in this opera sent me down quite the Google rabbit-hole. She was born in Brooklyn, apparently, became immensely powerful in Mao's last years, and not only is still alive but looks great. Much was made of the Met's decision to invite the surviving members of the American diplomatic party to come see the opera; I wonder if they invited Tang to see her opera-self jerk off the Great Teacher?))
But there are subtler hints about the team's original vision for the scene—dinner and food keep coming up in the characters' reveries. "We ate wild apricots," sings Chiang Ch'ing; "The taste is in my mouth," answers Chou. "Once we had roast / and a light film of dust" (dust being another of the opera's recurring symbols of history) "settled on each plate." Clearly, what's "supposed" to be happening here is that Chou and Ch'ing, eating a feast, are reminded fondly of much simpler meals from years ago.
Pat and Dick, on the other hand, are finding that Chinese food might not agree with them quite so well. Reminiscing about his service in the Pacific Theatre, he describes the nauseating jungle scene in terms of food:
I began to take in all the sights.Not too hard to imagine Nixon pushing away a bowl of half-eaten Chinese beef and a coconut-milk dessert as he sings these lines. As if to say, I'd kill for a Quarter Pounder right about now, he goes on to reminisce about the little bit of home he managed to build, stationed in the Pacific:
Picture a thousand coconuts
like mandrills' heads or native masks,
milk oozing from their broken husks,
the flooded rib of a palm frond
where several centipedes had drowned,
unsanded wood that smelled like meat…
Jesus, it grabbed you by the throat.
I swappedAnd this line, the Capitalist lie, finishes the arch stretching over the opera to that opening chorus and the corresponding lie of Communism: "the Customer is King," says America; say the Chinese, "the People are the Heroes."
spam for hamburger meat and roped
in a few men to rig a stand.
They called it "Nick’s Snack Shack". I found
the smell of burgers on the grill
made strong men cry.…
Done to a turn, medium-rare,
Rare, medium, well-done, anything
you say. The Customer is King.
Oh, right, and there's music in this opera, too. I don't feel any need to defend John Adams's work, though maybe I'm projecting a bit, since I'm basically his biggest fan in the world. The first time I heard his orchestral piece The Chairman Dances, drawn from the music in the last act, I was overwhelmed by the way it combined the layered rhythmic vitality of the music I listened to for pleasure (Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails) with the symphonic grandeur and harmonic sophistication of the classical composers whose music meant the most to me as an orchestral player. My brother bought me the disc of highlights for Christmas, and that's how I learned to love the setpieces from Acts One & Two, but the three-CD set went out of print for a few years around that time, so when I finally found the TWO-AUDIOCASSETTE box for sale at a Tower Records had to to buy it on AUDIOCASSETTE and got to know Act Three from popping the cassette into the tapedeck of our Honda Civic and driving around with it on a constant loop.
But it wasn't until this latest encounter with the piece, actually seeing it onstage (live at the first Saturday of the run, and then onscreen at the HD one week later) that I gained a real appreciation for Adams as a musical dramatist. It's difficult to verbalize—I'm not talking about the word-painting he does, like making the orchestra skip a beat when Dick says that "the nation's heartland skips a beat," but the subtle increase and release of tension that illuminates the subtext of, for instance, the otherwise arid first meeting between Nixon and Mao.
Adams was not quite as virtuosic at the helm of the Met Orchestra as he was at his desk. He wasn't bad either—he certainly brought out moments of great emotional intensity in the score—but if you saw Alan Gilbert conduct Doctor Atomic you know how much more dazzling and detailed that band's performance could've been.
With a single exception—James Maddalena, the terrific singer and actor who, a bit hoarse at the live performance I saw, found himself in truly dreadful voice at the HD—the cast was uniformly superb. Richard Paul Fink was not only funny as Kissinger, but offered moments of loveliness the role has probably never seen before. Russell Braun was exquisite as Chou En-Lai, the work's agonized conscience, and Robert Brubaker was superhuman as Mao, just HANGIN' OUT in the treble clef while sitting in the stooped posture of a decrepit old man.
Now I TOLD you people that Kathleen Kim was going to rock your world as the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung, and sure enough, she was a perfect terror of demonic intensity, but still flawlessly in tune on every high D. But my favorite was Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon. Her two performances actually seemed (to me) quite different in terms of the little emphases and rubati, really thinking about each word and each note coming out of her mouth right in the moment, digging ever deeper, intellectually, into the score to arrive at new emotional depths. Between the two of them, I was on the verge of tears for most of the second act.
And at the end of the third, I left the theater in a daze. I was stupefied. I could hardly speak, let alone articulate a reaction. This is, of course, the effect that a form like Nixon's is designed to produce—it supplanted my modern, quotidian experience with reflection, meditation, introspection. When I left the opera house, I stumbled to the next train out of town and fell immediately asleep; when I left the afternoon broadcast, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and discovered that the sun had set while I'd been in the dark, watching. The sky'd gone all orange and blue and was seemingly cloudless, but a thin flurry of huge white flakes snowed down as if from nowhere and then, after a moment, it stopped.