On the Opera Nixon in China

I have been wanting to see this opera for a long time. I was glad that finally the Met presented it yesterday. It was in many ways a delightful experience right from the start. The chorus and the ballet, the music and the décor, the singing and the libretto were all wonderful. The major personages: Nixon, Mao, Zhou en Lai and Kissinger, Pat Nixon and Mrs. Mau: were all very credible in appearance and in character.

The music was good in the context, though I might not have enjoyed it as much on the radio. The performers were great. James Maddalena portrayed Nixon very well, and I had difficulty he had played the same part almost a quarter of a century ago.  Whoever played Nancy “sang did very well, while though Richard Paul Fink  sang his arias well, but I had difficulty imagining him as kissing her. Robert Brubaker’s Mao Mao-tse Tung was again very well done musically speaking, but not as credible as Nixon. Janis Kelly was superb as Pat Nixon, in costume, hair-do and

I give full credit to the composer Adam, With all that I wasn’t moved fully by the opera, I felt that it was totally unconnected with the USA which is what Nixon was supposed to be representing. There were references here and there, but nothing very deep. And yet, there seemed to be a lot of symbolism which, for some reason, I simply could not grasp.

I could not figure not what the ballet (The Red Detachment of Women) in which  a Kissinger-character was torturing the woman was supposed to mean. “Was it Viet Nam?,” I wondered, and I did not understand Pat Nixon’s shock at the play and Richard Nixon’s telling her that it was only a play. The last act with a row of beds  was particularly incomprehensible to me. I am sure there was a deep symbolism behind Kissinger sleeping with a Chinese woman and another woman’s sexual massaging of Mao, but like profound theological passages,  its esoteric significance simply escaped me. If anything, they struck me as not adding much to the positive experiences I had watching the opera. On the other hand, the opera did conform to the Zeitgeist which calls for foul language, explicit sex, and needless violence in any form of general entertainment: the era of La gaza Ladra and La Bohème, like that of Singing in the Rain and Top Hat,  is gone for good. We live in an age when professors demonstrate bed room intimacies in their lectures to students, students have to be checked for guns before they come to class, and it is okay to give condoms to high school boys to prevent STD and pregnancy. So these elements have to be thrust into operas also, and the creators of Nixon in China have done this with great artistry.

February, 2011


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Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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