Nixon in China

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2012 | Stephen Betteridge, Chen Shi-Zheng, Franco Pomponi, Alfred Kim, June Anderson, Sumi Jo, Kyung Chun Kim, Peter Sidhom, Sophie Leleu, Alexandra Sherman, Rebecca de Pont Davies | ARTE Live Web, Live Internet Streaming, 18 April 2012

If the Live in HD broadcast last year of Adams’ Nixon in China direct from the Met in New York around the world served to remind one of the relevance of the work to the advancement of technology and the power of the media that forms one of the main themes of the work - the US President’s visit to China in 1972 broadcast to American primetime TV via satellite to impress the electorate back home - the latest live broadcast of a new 2012 production at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, made freely available for viewing on the internet courtesy of the TV channel Arte, certainly emphasises that point. On a rather smaller and more intimate scale however than the revival of the Peter Sellars production at the Met, it was the power of the opera itself and ultimately its message that came across even more strongly in the new Paris production.

Having recently listened to a number of modern operas sung in English, I was beginning to question again whether it’s a sufficiently musical language for opera. Even with John Adams’ rather more accessible rhythms, it’s not always the case that the English language fits smoothly with the flow and meter of the music, and that’s not even necessarily the case with Nixon in China itself, so it’s wonderful to hear the work sung, as it is here, with such a wonderful sense of integration with the music, and with feeling for the language and meaning of the libretto itself. There is a softer tone to the arrangements played by the Chamber Orchestra of Paris here, conducted by Stephen Betteridge with a wonderful sense for the rhythmic interweaving of the music and the voices, that seemed to bring a newfound lyricism to the sometimes obscure pronouncements and interjections of the protagonists in Alice Goodman’s libretto.


In terms of production design, there’s not really a great deal you can do with Nixon in China, since it is indeed tied to the historical event of an official state visit of an American President to Communist China in 1972, and Shilpa Gupta’s set designs for Chen Shi-Zheng’s production accordingly don’t look greatly different from the original Peter Sellars’ production. There’s no taxiing onto the Peking runway of the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ here - President and Mrs Nixon descend on a pulley to the background of a Great Wall - and the set designs are quite minimal elsewhere (there’s little sign of a banquet at the end of Act I, and no actual beds in the closing bedroom scenes of Act III), but essentially apart from the Red Detachment of Women’s Revolutionary Ballet in Act II, there’s no great reliance on dramatic interaction in the work, the Heads of State for the most part addressing each other and the audience as the people and the watching public.

Leaving the stage fairly clear of props - those that are used are mostly suspended by cables - the production is directed then very much with a choreographer’s eye by Chen Shui-Zheng, often populated with Red Army troops and Chinese citizens of the Revolution who deliver the opera’s fabulous chorus work. And since the opera deals with a visit that is heavily “stage managed”, the management of the stage in this way is kind of appropriate, the effects achieved simply though the use of light, colouration and stage placement of the figures. The Act II ballet, which brings into focus the key central theme of “power fantasy” works wonderfully in this respect, looking marvellous, while also emphasising the delicate blurring between the disturbing reality of the ballet created by Madam Mao and the no less disturbing resonances it sparks off in each of those who view it.


It doesn’t take Nixon long at the banquet in Act I to realise that he was wrong about China, and that although they may appear to be diametrically opposed in ideology, they are united by a common sense of purpose - world domination, or at least an evangelical belief in the mastery of the great over the small that can be achieved through manipulation of the reins of power. Nixon can’t help but admire the cult of personality the Mao inspires and recognises that whether it’s through a little red book or through satellite broadcasts on primetime TV, it’s an effective means of propaganda that appeals as much as to his sense of self-importance as his ideals. Act II’s ballet then represents different facets of this power fantasy to each person watching - on a political level as well as an interpersonal and gender level, the strong dominating the weak, the great demonstrating mastery over the small, individuality powerless against the force of the masses. Act III of course reminds us that each of the personalities involved are all too human and weak themselves, struggling with their own demons and their sense of insignificance in the greater scheme of things. That doesn’t however lessen the influence and capability for long-lasting damage that they can inflict through their beliefs and the image they desire to uphold before the media.


This is fantastic production then of a work that continues to exercise a fascination and meaning way beyond its historical 1970s context. It looks good, it sounds great and it full gets across all the qualities, implications, undercurrents and relevance of the work. Getting the right balance between self-importance and self-parody, Franco Pomponi sings Richard Nixon masterfully with genuine feeling and a wonderful lyricism, but he’s wonderfully supported also by an impressive performance from June Anderson as Pat Nixon. There are a large number of Chinese and Korean singers and dancers here that contributes towards an ethnic realism, but all sing well in their own right, notably Alfred Kim as an enigmatic and impassioned Mao Tse-tung, Kyung Chun Kim a dignified and troubled Premier Chou En-lai and Sumi Jo coping well with the high vocal demands of the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing.

Recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18th April 2012, Nixon in China is currently available, free to view, from the Arte Live Web site.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.


The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.