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

Wed, Feb 02, 2011 - Page 9

The date was April 15, 1988, and the television critic Marvin Kitman was quoting Walter Cronkite, the anchor, who was quoting Andre Malraux, the French adventurer, statesman and thinker. When then-US president Richard Nixon electrified the world by visiting the vast, mysterious communist bastion of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) China in 1972, Malraux said it would take 50 years to sort out what had happened there.

The same was true, Kitman suggested, of the opera Nixon in China, a collaboration of the intellectual gadfly and director Peter Sellars, who came up with the idea; the first-time opera composer John Adams; and the poet and first-time librettist Alice Goodman. The opera was being broadcast that night on PBS’ Great Performances series — Cronkite, who had accompanied Nixon to China, was the guest host.

Undaunted, Kitman leapt in with his instant assessment.

“There are only three things wrong with Nixon in China,” he said. “One, the libretto; two, the music; three, the direction. Outside of that, it’s perfect.”

Re-enacting one historic media circus, Nixon in China set off another. The premiere took place in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, where it was also filmed. In the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein called Nixon in China “an operatic triumph of grave and thought-provoking beauty.”

In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Mark Swed wrote that it would “bear relevance for as long as mankind cherished humanity.”

The naysayers were equally emphatic.

Peter Davis of New York magazine declared that “Adams fails to do the job.”

The chief music critic of the New York Times, Donal Henahan, opened his review with the question “That was it?” He characterized the production as “a Peter Sellars variety show, worth a few giggles, but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory” and “fluff.”

Well, the latest version of the well-traveled original production (which appeared early on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) alights at the Metropolitan Opera in New York tonight, affording the ubiquitous Sellars a tardy house debut. Adams, who had a hit at the Met with Doctor Atomic in 2008, will conduct there for the first time. The production is scheduled for high-definition broadcast to movie theaters on Feb. 12.

Concurrently, beginning on Wednesday next week, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto will present the opera in a stylish abstract staging by James Robinson, originally mounted by the Opera Theater of St Louis in 2004. A handful of shorter-lived productions have been mounted around the world, though none in China.

Adams first conducted Nixon in China at the British premiere in 1988 and has returned to it often, though not for some time.

“Don’t misquote me, or you’ll make me sound self-congratulatory, but when I look at it now, I’m amazed that I wrote it,” he said, before heading off to a rehearsal at the Met last month. “I had never attempted anything on this scale before, never written for the solo voice. I’m astonished that the opera turned out as well as it did and there’s Alice’s work as well.”

Having set the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in his choral fresco Harmonium, Adams insisted on finding a librettist whose literary voice would be both powerful and distinctive. When Sellars, who knew Goodman from their student days at Harvard, made the introductions, she had just one poem to show. Yet the match was made.

“Alice had never attempted anything remotely like Nixon,” Adams said. “It was just one of those miraculous things.”

Nixon’s audience with Mao, Pat Nixon’s excursions to factories and the Ming tombs: The synopsis of Nixon in China tracks history closely, but the creators imparted an imaginative, even mythic, dimension to their characters’ meditations.

Like Adams and Sellars, Goodman read up voluminously on her subject, producing a script that is sometimes slangy and often inspirational. Her word to describe her collaboration with Adams and Sellars is “polyphonic.”

“We disagreed violently about one thing and another, and while some of the disagreements were resolved, others were amicably maintained,” she wrote when the opera was new. “There are places where the music goes against the grain of the libretto and places where the staging goes against the grain of both.”

Sellars, in an essay for the current reissue of the original recording on Nonesuch, places Nixon against the backdrop of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, on one hand, and of his own production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, staged as The American President Visits the Middle East, on the other.

The musical affinities between Adams and Glass — the off-kilter, driving rhythms, the large arcs constructed from small cells — require no elaboration. The revolutionary lesson of Einstein, Sellars writes, was that opera “was not only not dead, or about the dead, or for the dead; it was alive as the collaborative form of choice for our interdisciplinary, intercultural, interdependent generation.”

As for Giulio Cesare, it spurred the Nixon team’s political and philosophical ambitions.

“Handel lunched with three administrations of corrupt British politicians, royalty, rear admirals, court flacks and power players, and he wrote the soundtrack to the British empire at close range,” Sellars said. “In Handel’s generation, writers like Swift and Fielding would announce comical or satirical intentions, and then proceed to unfold larger, much more serious, ultimately visionary projects.”

Nixon in China was conceived in just that spirit. What at first glance may look like lampoon, often devolves into the intense, dreamlike free associations characteristic of Einstein on the Beach, as when Nixon disembarks, exchanges courtesies with then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) on the tarmac and explodes into an aria of sputtering euphoria (News has a kind of mystery).

Kitman singled out this passage for special ridicule when the opera was new, but to the baritone James Maddalena, the original Nixon, the writing felt perfectly natural. With more than 100 performances in more than a dozen cities under his belt, Maddalena now recreates the role at the Met, still a few years shy of Nixon’s age (59) at the time of the historic visit.

“I just learned the music and sang it,” Maddalena said between rehearsals. “Have you ever flown to Asia? It’s a long trip. To me the music just fits the mood of being tired and wired from 50 cups of coffee on Air Force One.”

In context, a strain of paranoia in the aria is more difficult to account for. Adams said he suspected a grim line about rats beginning to gnaw the sheets — what sheets? — of being an “Alice Goodman goodie.”

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.