Late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, 1972, a week before his historic trip to China, Richard Nixon sat down in the White House to talk with the French intellectual André Malraux. Nixon was preparing for what promised to be an intense and challenging state visit, one that would end 20 years of frozen contacts. In the taped conversations leading up to the trip, you can hear him puzzling through the different angles: how to think of Mao, how to handle the American media, what to do about the Russians.
Malraux, the author of Man’s Fate and a former French minister, was regarded as having deep connections in China and an unusually close relationship with Mao. The Frenchman, in ill health and struggling to catch his breath throughout the meeting, evoked Mao as a titanic figure who ranked among the century’s greatest in stature and instinct. Mao is “a colossus,” he told Nixon, “but a colossus facing death.” Then Malraux, playing the sly courtesan, added, “You know what will impress him about you the most? That you are so young!”
Later, speaking to Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor and the architect of the China opening, Nixon relished the observation. “Isn’t that something! God almighty, that’s a comment on the leadership of the world these days. It’s all too damn old,” said Nixon, who was a year shy of 60. But Malraux hadn’t been talking only about Nixon’s age. He was also pointing to what Mao would see in the president and his country: a nation whose history is a tiny fraction of China’s, but young, vital, prosperous. And callow.
That young-old tension is, in many ways, at the heart of John Adams’s magisterial opera Nixon in China, which will receive its long-overdue Manhattan debut at the Metropolitan Opera in February, nearly 25 years after premiering in Houston. An all-star collaboration between Adams, director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris—all of whom were quite young at the time of the original production—the work captures the dynamic between opera’s traditional habits and its creators’ instincts for modern sound and movement.
The youthful spirit of Nixon in China is announced at the first instant, when a near-life-sized Air Force One, carrying Nixon, descends on the stage. That moment is a message about the kind of opera Adams and Sellars had in mind, one that creates something fresh by mixing eras and styles. Nixon, for instance, wanders the stage, releasing a feral one-note samba of “News, news, news, news,” as if what motivates him is pure publicity, in the way many classic operatic figures are driven by ambition or sin or rage. (Nixon in China has been called the first opera to use a staged media event as the basis for its story.) And the famous second act of the opera, which pairs the lives of Pat Nixon and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, is nothing if not a meditation on modernity, oppression and feminine power.
“I see Nixon as a rather poignant character,” Adams has said. “I find him a visionary.” Sellars, who came up with the idea for the opera in the early ’80s, called Mao and Nixon “the mythological figures of our time.” There’s no question that Nixon’s bathos is what soaks the opera most clearly. As he navigates the dramatic foreignness of China and confronts the virtues and vices of Mao and his veteran minister Zhou Enlai, there is a powerful sense of collision—a mashing of cultures, ideas and destinies. We know what lies ahead for Nixon: disgrace. And, too, what awaits China.
Throughout, Adams’s pulsing and driving beats create a deliberately unsettling undertone. You feel you are never quite at home; there is always a sense of being one note away from a slip into some new and unexpected mode.
Of course it’s impossible to see the opera merely as a period piece. Watching it at the Met in 2011, the great questions of history and politics are sure to drift into your brain: Where do we stand with China? Has America somehow become, in the four-decade rush since Nixon’s trip, the “colossus facing death”? There is much discussion in Beijing today about Western weakness, what Chinese call “the American financial crisis” and the sense, among some in China, that the country has finally “stood up.” But history rarely moves so cleanly from dynasty to dynasty. The unease we sense onstage mirrors the uncomfortable dance between the two nations now, 40 years later. What the next act will look like, nobody knows.
The Metropolitan Opera performs Nixon in China February 2–19.