News, News, News: Your Thoughts on The Met’s HD Nixon in China

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James Maddalena and Janis Kelly as Richard and Pat Nixon in the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adam's "Nixon in China," in 2011.(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
James Maddalena and Janis Kelly as Richard and Pat Nixon in the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adam's "Nixon in China," in 2011.(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Like everyone else in the operasphere, on Saturday I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission of John Adams’ Nixon in China. But unlike everyone else in the operashpere, or so it would seem, after seeing Nixon in China I’m not at all interested in crafting a musical critique of the performance.

Why rehash Janis Kelly’s startling resemblance to Pat Nixon or James Maddalena’s vocal infelicities in the title role?

Why not instead reflect on the opera itself as an explanation of – or at least a mirror on – the world as we know it? Wouldn’t that cut right to the political heart of this most political of modern operas?

There has been no more insightful commentary on the Metropolitan Opera’s run of Nixon in China than this story by Max Frankel, the former New York Times Washington Bureau chief who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Nixon’s 1972 visit to Mao Tse-tung’s China.

Is Frankel a classical music critic? No, and in this instance, that’s precisely the point. As Frankel obliquely points out, opera – from the earliest court spectacles to John Adams’ most recent opera, Doctor Atomic – has always been political. It’s the political value – which is not necessarily to say truth – of Nixon in China that assures this opera’s place in the musical canon.

So who better to grapple with the political intricacies of Cold War-era Realpolitik as presented in Nixon in China than one steeped and nuanced in, well, Cold War-era Realpolitik?

Frankel makes a compelling point about the problem of basing a work of art on an historical event perhaps too close in our collective past for comfort: any effort to portray that event with any semblance of realism will almost certainly result in an intellectually and emotionally shallow presentation of “what really happened.” In other words, as I have claimed elsewhere, verismo lies.

From the standpoint of interpreting art, we might not ultimately care that verismo lies to us. But from the standpoint of processing the ramifications of an event like Nixon’s 1972 visit to China through art, we do care. Especially now, confronted as we are not just by the worrisome aspects of China’s past that Frankel points up in his story, but also by the present economic and geopolitical realities of the sleeping giant Nixon awoke, or at least revealed to the West.

China’s nominal gross domestic product is projected to surpass that of the U.S. by 2025.

So uneasy are China and the U.S.-based Google on the question of freedom of information that it’s a wonder Nixon in China production designer Peter Sellars didn’t have allegorical representations of them jump into one of the beds onstage at the Met in the opera’s third act and sing an angst-ridden duet about truth and lies.

National Public Radio recently reported a sighting of a Chinese stealth fighter that the U.S. thought wouldn’t be fully operational until 2020.

With potentially grave implications of all this staring our world in the face, is it any wonder we look to every source – even art – for information about our past in the hopes of finding tea leaves in which we might read our future?

But maybe the question we should ask is not whether an opera should be our source for fact and truth about our world. Instead, maybe the question we should ask is whether fact and truth about our world are really what we’re looking for.

Could it be that at this point in time, we – at least we Americans –  really crave not actual information about our future with China (or with anything or anyone else), but rather comfort for what we sense might be a seismic shift in geopolitical terrain? Be honest. Maybe that old American optimism is rearing its yellow and black, smile-draped head.

That we Americans, for the most part, want everything to be okay was evident where I saw the Met’s HD transmission of Nixon in China last Saturday.

During the opera’s two intermissions, I had a chance to speak with other members of the audience at the Marcus Cinema at Crosswoods.

Their reactions to the opera as a work of art were almost universally positive – and truly, the DayGlo spectacle alone was worth the price of admission. But their reactions to the opera’s political messages in light of the current state of America’s relationship with China were more complex, if seemingly straightforward.

One opera viewer paraphrased words Nixon in China librettist Alice Goodwin assigned to the character of Chairman Mao: “founders come first, then profiteers:”

[audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/021311-interview1.mp3"]

In an intermission interview the Met transmitted before I spoke with this opera viewer, Peter Sellars remarked on the coincidental timing of the Met’s global HD transmission of Nixon in China on the day after Hosni Mubarak relinquished his generation-long rule over Egypt. This viewer picked up on that uncanny timing:

[audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/021311-interview2.mp3"]

At the end of Nixon in China, Chou En-lai wonders, “How much of what we did was good?”

Nearly forty years after Nixon’s visit to China we are all still asking that question, but we are also still asking the same fundamental question that Nixon, Mao and all the rest asked in 1972: Can the U.S. and China play nicely together in the same sandbox?

To that question has been added a corollary that is, to say the least, uncomfortable to voice: If the U.S. and China cannot play nicely together in the same sandbox, what happens next?

If nothing else, the Met’s hauling Nixon in China out of cold storage at this particular moment in Sino-American relations has forced us to reflect, whether or not we want to, on the state and future of our world.

Can China and the U.S. make a go of it? How much of what we’ve done has been good? What can we – what must we – do next that definitely will be good?

The stakes are now too high not to ask the latter question, regardless of the discomfort it brings about. Napoleon’s prediction may well have been a prophecy.

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