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'Nixon in China' is neglected no longer

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When I was in college, I hated Richard Nixon. Everyone I knew (except perhaps my father) hated Richard Nixon. My perspective was as a politically engaged undergraduate at UC Berkeley during the war in Vietnam -- holding a low draft number.

I gradually stopped hating Nixon. But it wasn't until Oct. 22, 1987, in the company of bejeweled and Stetson-topped Texans, that I began to understand why. Houston Grand Opera had commissioned John Adams' "Nixon in China" to celebrate the opening of a new opera house.

The "Nixon" premiere was a milestone in American opera, instigating what the New York press pejoratively dubbed " CNN Opera," namely opera that dared deal with our times and concerns. Over the next three years, Peter Sellars' original production was presented in New York; Washington, D.C.; Amsterdam; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Los Angeles. A recording with the original cast won a Grammy. The Houston production was televised; Walter Cronkite, the beloved television newsman who had covered Nixon's visit to China in 1972, was host.

As a subject for books, plays and films, Nixon, who died in 1994, remains ever fascinating. China, of course, has been ever on our minds. But the opera faded from the limelight, remaining on the fringes. Over the past two decades it has had the occasional small-scale production in Europe, along with a mounting by English National Opera in London of Sellars' production, which proved a surprise hit. As far as Nixon's homeland has been concerned, we've been stuck with the trivial, jokey production by James Robinson, first given by Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2004 and since making the rounds of several, mostly midsized, American companies, such as Opera Colorado, Chicago Opera Theatre and Portland Opera.

Neglected no more

But now "Nixon" is back and big time. On Saturday, Vancouver Opera will unveil a new production as part of the Canadian city's lingering 2010 Cultural Olympiad. The following Saturday, Long Beach Opera will present a different new production at Terrace Theater, the first Southern California staging of the opera since Los Angeles Opera's in 1990. Last month, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it has invited Sellars to re-create his "Nixon" production in New York next season, and the composer will conduct. The opera also got its belated second recording last fall, with the Naxos release of a live performance by Opera Colorado.

Despite its neglect by major opera companies over the past two decades, "Nixon in China" now comes to us as a classic. The opera remains as topical as ever, but the world has changed. And Adams, whose operatic credentials now also include "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Doctor Atomic," is no longer seen as an operatic upstart, which he was when he wrote "Nixon in China." Controversy will no longer be a problem.

When L.A. Opera put on Sellars' production, I wrote that "Nixon" wasn't a political opera but a personal one, that it was not about what Nixon meant for China but what China meant for Nixon. The shocking thing about the premiere of "Nixon in China" was just how nonpartisan the opera was.

Its creators -- Adams, Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman -- were liberals. But their purpose was to get inside history as only art can and in the way that only opera can. Anyone who took a close look at "Nixon in China" discovered that it was not "CNN opera," despite the historical accuracy of the libretto: It was a boldly anti-CNN opera. Its concern was everything that they didn't tell you on television.

Nixon's China trip in 1972 was the U.S. government's startling opening gambit toward normalizing its relationship with a Communist regime that it had long demonized. Fifteen years later, at the time of the opera's Houston premiere, the news images still felt fresh in the country's collective consciousness. But by then Nixon was no longer merely the first U.S. president forced out of the White House. A revisionist presidential history seemed possible, one that gave greater prominence to Nixon's trip to China than to the Watergate scandal. Mao Tse-tung, moreover, was no longer a hero to the left but was becoming recognized to have been a monster. Perestroika had just begun, and China was now well understood to be a sleeping giant.

The opera begins, almost like Pop art, with Air Force One's arrival in Beijing (then Peking) and the president walking on the tarmac to shake hands with Chinese Premier Cho En-lai. Nixon sings, "News, news, news," a wonderful sputtering aria about the moment. He saw himself as a great American adventurer, his trip into the political and cultural unknown equivalent to an American astronaut going to the moon. He was transfixed by being watched back home.

The opera continues with the scenes of the trip -- the meeting in Mao's study, the great banquet, Pat Nixon visiting schools and touring the countryside.

Adams' music uses many of the popular devices of that decade. He flirts with pop music and Minimalism and Wagner. Reviewing the premiere in the New York Times, Donal Henahan came up with the memorably dismissive line, "Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger, grinding out one simple idea unto eternity."

After 23 years of familiarity with the opera, I can say, at least for myself, that this is a marvelous, ever interesting eternity of which I have not tired. The score doesn't paint a picture of a modern China unknown to the West, but rather of Americans filtering it for the first time through an upbeat but bewildered sensibility. East is East and West is West, with a very large ocean between. The Chinese are poetic, philosophical, enigmatic, and intentionally so. Everyone is insecure. The insecurity, not the politics, is the opera's theme. How do we deal with the unknown?

The opera eventually veers away from narrative into the private thoughts of Nixon, Pat, Mao, Madame Mao and Chou. The portrayal of Henry Kissinger is the opera's one weakness. The imagination of these highly imaginative artists went only so far, and Kissinger was the one character for whom they couldn't imagine an inner life.

The inner man

Although Adams was from the draft-age generation that despised Nixon (and from a family of active New Hampshire Democrats), Sellars (who conceived of "Nixon" and who turned 30 the month before its premiere) and Goodman (his contemporary and Harvard classmate) knew of Nixon's presidency more from study than immediate experience. And this may be what freed them to look inside the man. Goodman's rhymed couplets personalize the public record into inspired lyric verse.

The last act was originally conceived as a final banquet for the exhausted parties, their defenses down. Nixon and Pat dance and retreat into old memories. The same happens to Mao and his wife and to the warmly wise Chou. (Kissinger rushes off to the bathroom and we never hear from him again.)

The first two acts are grand opera. Sellars spoke a lot at the time about the mythic quality of these characters. Pat sings an aria bursting with lyricism, a vision ofAmerica, the land of the good. Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao) is a Chinese Queen of the Night. Chou is the Verdian baritone father figure. Mao is the crazy tenor and Nixon the holy fool.

In his staging, Sellars ignored Goodman's stage direction and moved the last act from ballroom to bedroom to emphasize that these are no longer public figures. They are, in fact, the most powerful players on the world stage at the end of their lives or careers. Mao and Chou were dying. Nixon's presidency would soon come to a sudden end.

Their questions were now our questions. What does it all mean? Was that all there is to life? Henahan's other oft-repeated line, the opening of his review, "That was it? That was 'Nixon in China'?" means more, I think, than he meant.

And that is why I discovered I no longer hated Nixon. He stumbled through history. But so do they all, we learned long ago from Shakespeare. And so was a Nixon full of contradictions and competing drives. He could be ruthless, and he had the capacity to do some good -- I applaud the National Endowment of the Arts, which was created on his watch and which has helped make operas like "Nixon in China" possible. He opened the China gates.

When "Nixon in China" was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., I was writing for the Wall Street Journal and requested an interview with the former president. He agreed. But then he changed his mind and, as far as I know, he never spoke publicly about the opera. So we are left with yet another tantalizing question about this complicated man.

In the end, "Nixon in China" is, in fact, a carnival of enigmas. But revisiting "Nixon," I do now find it more politically prophetic than I originally had.

I leave you with this, from the Chairman's mouth: "Founders come first, then profiteers."

This from Pat Nixon: ". . . I foresee / A time will come when luxury / Dissolves into the atmosphere / Like a perfume. . . ."

And this from Chou: "How much of what we did was good? / Everything seems to move beyond/ Our remedy. . . ."

mark.swed@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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