Wed, Feb 02, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Resonating from the Great Wall: ‘Nixon in China’ plays the Met

The synopsis of the quirky opera tracks history closely, but the creators imparted an imaginative, even mythic, dimension to their characters’ meditations

By Matthew Gurewitsch  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

By e-mail from Trinity College, Cambridge, Goodman (who was raised as a Reform Jew, but now serves as the college’s ordained Anglican chaplain) confirmed that it was, adding that the imagery is “nautical, not bedroom.”

“R.M.N. is imagining himself as the captain of a ship,” she wrote, and why not, given his record of naval service?

Often lines that seem wildly fanciful allude to very specific historical facts and utterances, and new knowledge brings new layers. For the benefit of the current cast, Sellars has assembled a lending library of some 50 books on Chinese affairs in the rehearsal room, many published since the opera was completed.

A more elaborate interpenetration of the historical and the personal comes in Act II.

Horrified by the sadistic agitprop ballet The Red Detachment of Women, choreographed in the Sellars production by Mark Morris, Pat Nixon leaps onstage to intervene, shortly to be followed by Jiang Qing (江青), Mao’s wife, who cuts loose with an aria of cold, revolutionary fury.

The coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim, who sings Jiang (transliterated Chiang Ching), has done her homework too.

“Jiang Qing was an actress before she met Mao,” she said recently. “During the Cultural Revolution, with Mao, she was the most powerful figure in China, responsible for millions of people’s deaths, but she was also a woman who wanted to be loved by her husband and hated being rejected. At her trial she said: ‘I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.’”

If the visionary conclusion of Jiang’s aria suggests a counterintuitive identification with the character on the part of the librettist, Goodman does not deny it.

“A writer tends to find her characters in her self,” Goodman wrote in her e-mail. “So I can tell you (I think I’ve told this to other people, so it’s not news) that Nixon, Pat, Madame Mao, [Henry] Kissinger and the chorus were all ‘me’ and the inner lives of Mao and Chou Enlai [the opera uses this transliteration], who I couldn’t find in myself at all, were drawn from a couple of close acquaintances.”

Goodman stacks the deck against Kissinger, who comes off as an unprincipled scoundrel. Pat Nixon, however, displays a deep and touching dignity; Zhou, who has the last word, emerges as a philosopher king.

As a seasoned opera composer now, Adams has learned the painful lesson that audiences will take from a work of art what they like.

“I’ve read some suggestions that Nixon in China paints the Communists, especially Mao, with a sense of awe and belittles America,” he said. “From my point of view, that’s utterly wrong.”

As Nixon in China approaches repertory status, surely it is only a matter of time before some director or other makes precisely that case, or one more deliberately outrageous.

“Oh no,” Adams said. “You mean that someday there will be a Eurotrash production?”

On the Marxist principle that history repeats itself as farce, that seems a foregone conclusion. Call it the price of immortality.

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