Nixon in China Onstage

Posted Feb. 08, 2011, at 8:25 p.m.

Whatever else you think of Richard Nixon, his trip to China in 1972 marked a historic opening of U.S.-Chinese relations and did both countries, and the whole world, a huge favor. An operatic version of the five-day visit opened Feb. 2 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Live screenings of the matinee will be shown Saturday, Feb. 12, at 1 p.m. at The Grand in Ellsworth and the Strand Theatre in Rockland, with later encore showings.

The opera opens with a large crowd of Chinese, many dressed in the plain blue Mao suits, awaiting Mr. Nixon’s arrival. A mockup of Air Force One lands onstage, and the president and his wife, Pat, emerge and are greeted by Premier Chou En-lai and other Chinese officials.

The modern music, composed and conducted by John Adams, surges as Mr. Nixon, sensing the importance of the moment, muses that “news has a kind of mystery.” He refers to himself as an “old cold warrior piloting toward an unknown shore.” Director Peter Sellars had described the trip as bringing the collapse of a “mental wall” and the recognition of “one-fifth of the planet.”

Soon the aging dictator Chairman Mao Tse-Tung totters in to exchange sometimes obscure proclamations with Mr. Nixon, Mao predicts that “our plunge into the New York Stock Exchange will line some pockets here and there.”

At a lavish banquet, Mr. Nixon, in toast after toast, manfully sips maotai, the Chinese liquor that has been described as tasting like razor blades. Mao comes off as an imperious dictator; Mr. Nixon as a stiff, self-conscious stick figure, and Mrs. Nixon as a gracious, self-effacing helpmate to the president. Premier Chou, who actually was running the country, is a commanding but amiable leader, holding one hand clenched in the Dupuytren’s contracture from which he suffered.

Most of the opera seems to reflect accurately the events of the trip. The Nixons are shown a performance of a revolutionary ballet and witness an outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in a scene of fighting and chair throwing.

About 60 journalists, including Bangor Daily News editorial page senior contributing editor Richard Dudman, and officials who had gone on the 1972 trip were entertained at a dress rehearsal on Jan. 31 and treated to a replay of the 1972 banquet, with thousand-year-old eggs and “velvety bamboo pith consomme.”

Some veterans of the trip were puzzled by the treatment of Henry Kissinger, shown as a sex-mad scoundrel, finally beaten and thrown to the floor. Winston Lord, who was Mr. Kissinger’s special assistant on the trip, called the portrayal untrue and unfair.

Mr. Adams, the composer, broke new ground with his opera “Doctor Atomic” about J. Robert Oppenheimer and “Nixon in China.” What other historic episodes could become operas? A New York Times reviewer suggested the Watergate break-in. One can imagine thunderous music as Nixon’s Plumbers rummage files at the Democratic campaign headquarters and burglarize the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

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