Nixon in China

Written and conducted by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman
Directed by Peter Sellars
Featuring James Maddelena, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Kathleen Kim

The Metropolitan Opera
February 2, 5, 9 12, 15, 19, 2011
production web site:

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 15, 2011

(L to R) Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, James Maddelena. Image: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

We all bring our own experiences to art crafted out of history. Our experiences with the real events depicted on stage, on the page, on the screen, will always animate our reactions to the art.  I have enjoyed reading in recent weeks pieces inspired by this Met debut, written by journalists and others who were involved in the events of 1972. [see for example:] Mao.  Chou En-lai.  Madame Mao.  Reserved Pat.  Stiff and strange Nixon. All of a piece, to music, in the magnificent Metropolitan Opera, with seat back titles for the already English-language singing.  I have watched the career of my wild and brilliant college classmate Peter Sellars for 30 years; I have heard about this opera for almost 25 years since its premiere in 1987 in Houston.  I am eager, I am drinking in all the layers of the experience, and I am not disappointed.  After 3 acts, 2 intermissions, and 4 hours, I am buzzing with reactions to this visual and aural and intellectual adventure.

Our playbill is stuffed full of background essays, artistic discursions by the creators themselves — explorations and explications of the “tangle of dramaturgical puzzles” (I shall steal this phrase, with credit to program note author Thomas May, to name a future book or blog).  A five-day U.S.-China State Visit to Beijing in 1972 composed of “one choreographed extravaganza to another”, according to the essay by journalist and witness Bernard Kalb.  This opera was born of these events not long after, crafted between 1985 and 1987.  Intentional tediousness of staging and pacing are matched by punctuations of emotional brilliance in this art out of life.

The three acts of the piece seem to fall along gender lines in part.  Men, then women, then a blend.  Act One is for the men and proceeds in stillness, in choreographed meetings between the major players, talking at not with one another about political positioning and philosophy.   Richard Nixon (James Maddalena), Chou En-lai (Russell Braun), Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink), and Mao Tse-Tung (Robert Brubaker).  Kissinger is used primarily for lewd womanizing behaviors as the play proceeds while the others deliver political tracts in this Act.  Chou En-lai is the political adjutant, or so the character felt to me  — at Mao’s side ready to assume power or support.  Positioning.  And all the while an insistent musical theme that maintains tension through the monologues that immediately puts me in mind of Bernard Herrmann‘s magnificent theme for the film North by Northwest.

While we meet the women in the first act, the second act belongs to them and their arias. Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly) reveals her early life in poverty, her reserved love for her husband, her handfuls of pills (are these sedatives or something else?).  Her actions often culminate with a rest on a bed on stage.  She is most animated when at her most confused — interfering with a dance performance when she believes a young woman dancer is actually in danger.  Madame Mao Tse-tung (Kathleen Kim) emits strength in her silences in early scenes and comes fully into her own when the insistent musical theme emotionally explodes into “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung / I speak according to the book.”  This sequence, this aria, is the core and pivot point and emotional highlight of the production.

The final act provides us history of the couples at the center of this moment in history — Pat sings to Richard of early years of “squeezing his paycheck until it screamed” and Mao and Madame Mao copulate and give each other oral sex at another end of the stage, reminiscing.  We believe there is love between these two couples that has become something political and strategic in their late middle age. And the adventure in political theatre concludes.

Set design by Adrianne Lobel is spare where necessary and sometimes twee (what is it with the elephants — are they something out of a Pat Nixon fever dream?).  The quite pleasing Marimekko-inspired birch tree back scrim that is present for all non official events representing the country (I guess) is grand and stunning.  The dances choreographed by Mark Morris are fine and moving.

And so we focus on the people and the singing and the operatic reality of this outrageously outsized moment in history.  We are honored to have the composer John Adams conduct for these performances.  And I continue to have as part of my own personal reaction to this amazing piece the music of Bernard Herrmann, in a 1959 adventure movie.  Click the following to get a very clear sense  (make of that what you will) of the driving insistent theme that animates much of this opera and (for this movie-loving gal), evokes the magnificent and very Cold War, American, Hitchcock-directed North by Northwest.  Oh my.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 16, 2011)

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