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.

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