Review: Nixon in China

In some ways, Vancouver Opera’s production of Nixon in China was following the historical plot, but it went far, far beyond that.

Having read Margaret MacMillan’s history on “The Week That Changed the World” in the weeks before Tuesday’s performance, I had an idea of who the main players were and why they were integral to the opera. But an opera based on the official histories probably wouldn’t work so well, which is why I appreciated the liberties composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman took in giving the main characters, especially Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung. As MacMillan herself put it during her opera-sponsored conversation, Nixon and Mao were given mythical status in the opera.

I think there is a complexity in the characters of Nixon in China that lends credence to an additional human element that actually makes some of them likable, even Nixon himself. One example: one scene had Richard and Pat Nixon doing the twist, which soon had Mao and Chiang Ch’ing trying to outdo them. And there’s the innuendoes surrounding Henry Kissinger, whether it’s Nixon dropping hints about his prowess, or his participation in that play-within-an-opera involving whips. (Yeah, I can’t get that image out of my head either.)

This being an opera, there should certainly be something said about the music. A note in the program, and from what I’ve learned in the very informative pre-show talk, mentioned the various musical influences of John Adams in the sounds of Nixon in China. At different points in the opera, there are hints of big-band sounds, film noir, and even synthesized 1980s pop (keep in mind the opera premiered in 1987 in that cultural mecca known as Houston). The way the music drives the plot, from the soaring introduction as Nixon’s plane makes its way to China, all the way to the subdued conclusion and Chou En-lai’s solitary rumination on the future, shows how Adams works the appropriate emotion into the opera.

Similarly, Alice Goodman’s libretto is just as instrumental in how well Nixon in China expresses itself on stage. Goodman’s poetry background is evident here, with many lines in rhyming couplets. There are also good examples used by Goodman of the contrasts between Nixon and Mao in their momentous meeting, and particularly of Mao’s cryptic responses to Nixon and Kissinger. One of these is of Nixon upholding the utmost respect to history, only to be countered by Mao’s assertion that history is a “dirty old sow”.

Nixon in China was definitely great fun to watch and listen. It gave interesting insights into that historic visit, but more than that, it was a chance to see six intriguing character studies, and the impact on each of them as they experience a whirlwind week.

Getting ready for the Nixon in China experience

It might have been because it was part of the Cultural Olympiad. It might have been amplified when I decided to read up on the subject by reading Margaret Macmillan’s recent history on “The Week That Changed the World”. But getting my ticket for one of the performances at Vancouver Opera’s staging (and Canadian premiere) of American composer John Adams’ Nixon in China sealed the deal, and based on some reviews from opening night, I will probably not be disappointed.

Even though I’ve always been interested in 20th-century American history, I’ve never had the chance to examine Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to China in February 1972. Reading Macmillan’s Nixon in China (2006) gave me the chance to see the multiple layers that this visit entailed, and why it proved opportunistic for both the USA and China. In addition to the Tuesday performance of the opera, I’m also attending a conversation with Margaret Macmillan the following night. It should be interesting to see what additional insights she can provide.

As for the opera, this will only be the 2nd performance of VO I’ll be watching. The first one was Magic Flute in 2007. It was CBC Radio Two’s 2006 live broadcast of the Ring Cycle that got me interested in opera. While I do have bits and pieces of the popular ones in my music library, I hadn’t experienced a complete live performance until I decided to go to the Magic Flute. Granted, Nixon in China should be a different beast, given the minimalist style and the English-language libretto, but it will still be worth watching.

(Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for Vancouver Opera)

A little neglected…

I am disappointed that I haven’t kept up with this blog in more than two months. There just hasn’t been any time to compose new posts. It’s probably not an excuse, but I find myself constantly being squeezed of time. Consequently, posting on this blog is given short shrift.

I could schedule it – insert an hour or so into my weekend to compose a post, but I don’t want to feel pressured into posting something that may have been forced, or worse, not be necessary to post just so I can have something posted on the blog.

Nevertheless, I’ve taken to writing some ideas for posts that (hopefully) can be written and posted in the next month or two.