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Nixon in China, not in China

Nixon in China (SW file photo)

Sometime Danwei contributor Nick Frisch covers music and culture in and around Hong Kong and Greater China. He wrote in with the story behind his recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia (English) (Chinese) filed from New York City during last month's performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

Nixon in Limbo: How John Adams’s Nixon in China Never Quite Arrived There

You might expect John Adams’s Nixon in China to be forbidden fruit among composers, musicians, theater-lovers, and artistic subversives of all stripes in the PRC. After all, historical dramas are the Chinese theatrical tradition’s stock-in-trade. The opening salvo of the Cultural Revolution was a scathing review of one such play – “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office” (海瑞罢官) – that obliquely criticized Chairman Mao through Ming Dynasty parable. Many Chinese composers, from the ivory tower of the Central Conservatory to the grimy backrooms of D-22, are familiar with John Adams and musical minimalism (简约音乐 or 简约主义). Nixon’s visit profoundly altered the everyday lives of ordinary Chinese, far more than Americans. You can even stream the entire 1987 Houston Grand Opera production from Tudou (Scene 1 – it is also on YouTube.)

But when it comes to Nixon in China in China, the silence has been deafening.

There is one article from a 2007 issue of “People’s Music” (人民音乐). The Tudou clips have a few hundred views at most (one from Youku clocks in at a modest 10,000). While an avalanche of English-language media coverage has greeted the year’s production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (and another in Canada), there has been barely a blip on Chinese radar screens.

Taking some Chinese friends in New York to the Met’s Saturday matineé last month, and discussing the opera with many others, it became apparent that they are simply unaware.

Maestro Li Delun (李德伦) was Mao’s top musician, the music director for the “model operas” (八个样板戏) referenced in Act II, and in charge of vetting songs played for Nixon in 1972 – “Turkey in the Straw” and “Home on the Range” among others. Over breakfast in Beijing, his widow Li Jue (李珏), herself an accomplished violinist, professed ignorance of the opera, but gladly showed off her souvenir paperweights from the 1972 visit. Her daughter and grandson, both musicians living in Canada, were likewise unaware.

The weight of history: a 1972 memento

Many Chinese who saw the opera, onstage or online, found parts of it bizarre, even faintly ridiculous. When Mao sings about a “golden bowl broken” – a reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes and a Henry James novel – one imagined 金饭碗, a comfortable government sinecure and play on “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗). Zhou Enlai’s soaring aria leading up to a repeated “Gambei” (as ganbei/干杯 is rendered in the libretto) sounds stirring to Western ears, but mildly preposterous to Chinese ones. Act I sticks largely to historical facts, over a pulsing minimalist score. Act II begins to descend into fantasy as the Nixons interfere with the action of their evening's entertainment: The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军), a revolutionary ballet that was one of Jiang Qing's pet projects. Act III is total fantasy, as the characters ruminate and wonder "how much of what we did was good?" My Chinese friends found the original Red Detachment more compelling, and I was inclined to agree.

Art follows art: Two Red Detachments

By unanimous acclaim, however, one moment was pitch-perfect: Jiang Qing’s coloratura tantrum “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.” A whole slew of interviewees, from State Department veterans in Nixon's entourage to Chinese artists familiar with Jiang’s tirades, said the moment nailed perfectly her personality and tendency to interfere in the arts.

She speaks according to the book: Jiang Qing

While the authorities today might not disagree with that depiction of the Gang of Four’s disgraced and reviled leader, the Met production’s Act III is surely grounds for censorship: Mao’s sexual escapades were inspired, said director Peter Sellars, by revelations from The Private Life of Chairman Mao (毛泽东私人医生回忆录), the memoir of his doctor Li Zhisui (李志绥). Even in Hong Kong, the Met’s popular season of HD broadcasts has mysteriously dropped Nixon.

In some ways, the opera has aged well, especially for an American audience – Mao’s jokes about listing on the New York Stock Exchange seemed timely. Members of Nixon’s entourage who saw the opera were mostly appreciative, with a widely-repeated exception. “The treatment of Henry Kissinger was very unfair and distorted” said Nicholas Platt, who helped engineer Nixon’s visit before serving as Ambassador to Pakistan and in other key US government posts.

John Frankenstein, an opera lover who was a junior State Department officer in Hong Kong when the visit was announced, thought the opera did a decent job of capturing the sweep and gravity of the moment. “We thought a rapprochement of some kind was coming, but it was done so secretly, the announcement was a surprise. Not even the US ambassador to Taiwan [the Republic of China] was alerted. The libretto had some interesting angles on the story, and I think the staging of [Jiang Qing’s] aria really conveyed the regime’s institutionalization of violence that we had guessed at, but now know to be a fact of live that peaked during the Cultural Revolution.”

Only one reaction to the opera from Chinese officialdom surfaced, via former State Department official Douglas Paal: “When [Nixon] premiered at the Kennedy Center, I hosted the Chinese embassy’s leaders in the President’s box” he recalled in an e-mail. “Their reaction ranged from shock to outrage to ridicule. They were offended by attempts at low humor, especially suggestive behavior by Jiang Qing. They were not favorably impressed.”

Adams, Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman certainly succeeded in creating a classic American opera, which all three insisted was their only goal in interviews last month . All the same, it would have been interesting to see to see Nixon the opera try a little harder where Nixon the man succeeded – in reaching out to the Chinese themselves.

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