Nixon in Brooklyn

Nixon in China

an opera, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 4-17, 1987

Nixon in China is an opera by Alice Goodman, a poet living in Cambridge, England, and John Adams, a composer who until recently was new music adviser at the San Francisco Symphony. The opera was commissioned by four companies—the Houston Grand Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, De Nederlandse Opera, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—and it has been directed by Peter Sellars, who first thought of Nixon as the subject of an opera and who was responsible for bringing together the people who created it. The first performance in New York City, conducted by Edo de Waart, took place on December 4 as part of the 1987 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In a note in the program of the Next Wave Festival, Peter Sellars claims that the opera “honors the human and political complexity of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.” The opera recounts the main events of the trip in a series of arresting images. We see the President’s plane rolling to a stop on the stage as he arrives in Peking. In the next scene Nixon and Kissinger meet with Mao, and they are later joined by Pat Nixon and others at a banquet given by the Chinese in honor of their American visitors. We see an elevated platform strewn with flowers against a backdrop of very long, brilliantly colored shiny curtains on which hang enormous Chinese and American flags.

Pat Nixon goes on to visit a hospital, a pig farm, and the Ming tombs: these scenes, too, make use of vivid images, such as a giant papier-mâché elephant, which the first lady admires at the tombs. The Nixons, accompanied by the ferocious ideologue Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao), attend a performance of a revolutionary ballet entitled The Red Detachment of Women, full of colorful flags and knockabout activity; we are later shown an immense portrait of Mao—at least a story high—whose trapdoor mouth opens to reveal the real Mao standing on a platform.

In the last scene of the opera, on the evening of the final ceremonies of the visit, the Nixons, Chou En-lai, Mao and his wife, and Kissinger walk around or lie down on six empty beds set in a row on the stage—reminding me of the hospital beds (each occupied by an Abraham Lincoln) used by Robert Wilson in The CIVIL warS. Kissinger queasily asks directions to the toilet and never returns, while the rest of the characters reminisce on the events of their youth—the Long March or, in Nixon’s case, World War II in the Pacific.

Mr. Sellars’s set designer, Adrianne Lobel, has created some strong effects, such as the airplane, The Spirit of ’76, and the portrait of Mao, but some of her ideas do not work very well, such as a scene in the second act in which the characters find themselves in what looks like a giant Tiffany lamp. The costumes and the lighting of the stage, especially the use of…

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