Nixon in China, Metropolitan Opera live relay, cinema, February 2011

In February 1972, Richard Nixon made a dramatic break to previous US foreign policy by opening up to China, visiting Beijing and meeting Mao Tse-tung and his foreign secretary Chou En-lai. Ten years later, Peter Sellars had the idea for turning this visit into an opera, and he put together a team, with John Adams as the composer, Alice Goodman as librettist, and Mark Morris as choreographer. The opera was first produced in Houston in 1987, and though each of the team claimed it was a joint effort, Adams’s music is surely the key feature, and has achieved well-deserved acclaim. This is the first time the Met has put it on, and English audiences may recall the same production at the English National Opera ten years ago. As before, Peter Sellars is the director, with Mark Morris in charge of the choreography, and on this occasion John Adams himself was in the orchestra pit.

Richard and Pat Nixon land at Beijing, all images Ken Howard

The story starts with the landing of the presidential aircraft, followed by a welcome ceremony for the visitors in which Chou En-lai enquires whether Nixon had a good flight. He says it was smooth, though the music conveys a different opinion. Meanwhile the chorus sings a repeated refrain of The people are the heroes now/ Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow. When Nixon meets Mao and comments on foreign issues in relation to other countries in East Asia, Mao waves this away as the business of others — his business is philosophy. As Adams said in one of the intermission interviews, Mao is portrayed as either brilliantly philosophical or just senile., and within its six tableaux this opera allows the participants to express their world-views in a series of conversations or soliloquies.

Mao and Nixon

One of the most dramatic scenes occurs in Act II when Nixon and his wife Pat, Chou, Mao and his wife Chiang Ch’ing come together to watch a Chinese ballet in which an abusive landowner, played by Henry Kissinger, is thwarted by the courageous women soldiers of the State. The Nixons get emotionally involved in the action, and at the end, Chiang Ch’ing expresses her view of the cultural revolution. Her lines are shrill, including We’ll teach these motherfuckers how to dance, her music that of a coloratura soprano, and she is the only character portrayed unsympathetically.

The opera ends with Chou En-lai’s soliloquy “I am old . . .”, beautifully delivered by Russell Braun who gave a wonderful performance, holding his hand to his body as if in pain — only later was it known that Chou was suffering from undiagnosed pancreatic cancer. Kathleen Kim gave an excellent portrayal of Chiang Ch’ing, and Janis Kelly sang with sympathy and affection as Pat Nixon, a role she also performed at the English National Opera in a previous version of this production. Robert Brubaker performed well as Mao, and James Maddalena, who was the original Richard Nixon in 1987, repeated the role here though his voice may have faded a little with time. Richard Paul Fink sang the oafish role of Kissinger, and gave a fine performance in the Act II ballet.

The end of the ballet

The intermission interviews are a wonderful aspect of these Met broadcasts, and Thomas Hampson did a great job of letting the interviewees speak for themselves. Peter Sellars exuded enthusiasm from his toes to the end of his extraordinary hair-do, extolling Adams’s music and saying “it builds and has tension . . . rather like Mozart”. Janis Kelly was equally laudatory, calling it a “twentieth century masterpiece”. The sets by Adrianne Lobel were based on original photos of the trip, but it’s always difficult in these broadcasts to fully appreciate the sets since very few images show the whole stage, and the lighting seemed rather dark.

All in all this is a great piece of music theatre and I congratulate the Met for broadcasting it.

Leave a Comment