Richard and Pat Nixon in China, 1972. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By the time I saw Nixon in China during its 2011 run at the Metropolitan Opera, it had become a classic, if not an entirely undisputed one. It had made it to the Met, at least, with its composer, John Adams, conducting, and James Maddalena, who originated the role of Nixon in the 1987 premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, back at it, now nearly the age Nixon was when he made the trip. A friend of mine, with theatrical élan, bought out a box for a group of us and encouraged formal dress, as if we were in a nineteenth-century novel. He showed up in a tux. I don’t remember my outfit, but I’d be surprised, knowing myself, if I managed anything more presentable than a mildly rumpled off-the-rack suit. At the time, I was working as an assistant to a magazine editor who regularly attended the opera, in full formal dress, with a pair of its major donors, fitting in an elaborate meal on the Grand Tier during intermission. My handling of his invitations gave me a surprising proprietary sense about the place. I didn’t feel that I belonged, of course, but at least I had a narrow help’s-eye-view of its workings. In the upper deck, and even in our box, my friends and I had the sense of superiority that comes from being broke and artistic among the rich and, presumably, untalented.
Not that I had any major insight into the opera at the time, this one specifically or the art form more generally. I’d sat in the cheap seats on a few occasions, trying to rouse myself awake for the end of Tristan und Isolde, once, with a Wagner-loving girlfriend. I’d even stood in the back row of the orchestra for Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, feeling obligated as a Dostoyevsky loyalist to bear witness. (All I remember is a general brownness and a grim, monochromatic score. It was, after all, a Czech opera about a Russian prison camp.) I did, however, have an abiding interest, bordering on mania, in the pathos of conservative politics, and only a person who has lost interest in the world could fail to be interested in Richard Nixon. The friend who had arranged this outing was, among other things, a news junkie and former Republican, and his relationship to the former president was characterized, like the opera’s relationship to its subject, by a complicated mix of irony and enthusiasm. Dramatic renderings of Nixon tend toward the sweaty and profane (as in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor) or the broadly comic (Philip Roth’s novel Our Gang, or the 1999 film Dick, starring a young Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, an overlooked gem surely due for reappraisal). But Adams’s monumental, hypnotically Glassian score and Alice Goodman’s dense postmodern libretto invest Nixon with a weird if inarticulate dignity that he rarely displayed in life. The striving and paranoia are tamped down, replaced with yearning naïveté and statesmanship.
Though the opera remains true to the publicly known contours of the actual trip, Nixon in China’s Dick and Pat are as much stand-ins for Americans Abroad—hopeful, a bit bumbling, but fundamentally decent, albeit with the power of the world’s wealthiest country at their back—as they are representations of real people. (Nixon, it’s worth noting, was still alive when the opera premiered, and was invited to the opening. A few years later his representative said that he didn’t attend because he “has never liked to see himself on television or other media, and has no interest in opera.” Okay!) In his arias, Nixon delivers a garbled mix of clichés, non sequiturs, impressionistic memories, and Ashberyian koans, the most famous of which, “News has a kind of mystery,” is repeated in dizzying variations soon after Nixon descends from his Boeing 707 and shakes hands with Chou En-lai (as the Chinese premiere’s name is unorthodoxly rendered in the libretto). The song lodges in one’s brain immediately—I’ve been continually exclaiming “News! News! News!” at my four-month-old son—and serves as a kind of motto or benediction for the entire work, simultaneously insistent and ambiguous. It’s the exclamation of a man who is marveling at the mythmaking apparatus that he has been an active beneficiary of and that will ultimately destroy him. It’s the vagueness that makes it transcendent, a half-formed thought one might jot down in a notebook and turn over in one’s head for days. A kind of mystery?
There’s an emptiness at the core of Nixon in China that is appropriate, given that it’s about political pageantry, the kind of nonevents that Joan Didion identified as the stock-in-trade of modern politics in her 1988 essay “Insider Baseball.” One of opera’s chief methods is to turn private emotions into grand spectacle, to give voice to feelings that could never be as beautifully expressed as they are in a duet between two doomed lovers. Nixon in China turns superficial spectacle into another spectacle, a copy of a copy. There is action—Nixon meets with Mao; Nixon and Chou deliver toasts at a banquet; Pat goes on an official sightseeing tour—but there is little dramatic movement. Even when we do get insight into the “private” Nixon, Pat, Mao, et al., in quieter scenes that take place behind closed doors, what is revealed is not fundamentally different from what is presented publicly. Adams’s score ebbs and flows, churning on and on, threatening, but never tipping over into, catharsis. The work steadily resists resolution—it ends with an extended coda, taking up the entire third act, in which the characters prepare for bed.
At the time, in 2011, I remember enjoying the spectacle, and puzzling over what it all meant. News … news … news … I had been to the opera so infrequently that I assumed any gulf between my understanding and the work’s intention lay with me. But the passage of time hasn’t brought a grand interpretive theory, and anyway, that isn’t really what this art form requires. Over the subsequent decade and change, I’ve found in opera a refuge of old-fashioned virtuosity, a place where, give or take the occasional malfunctioning Ring Cycle set, one can reliably admire vocal athleticism and swaggeringly baroque production values, regardless of one’s level of prior knowledge. Of course, understanding the source material, the nuances of the score’s texture and performance choices, the historical context of the work’s composition, and much else, adds to the experience on an intellectual level—that is, in retrospect. But so much of the joy lies in the immediacy of the moment, which one can feel even as a know-nothing in the cheap seats, and supplement as desired in the aftermath.
On reflection, the very tentativeness that Goodman’s libretto invokes—a kind of mystery—suggests her and Adams’s philosophy. It’s not anti–great man theory, exactly, as it’s still very much an opera about history’s main characters. But the tenuousness of their position is made clear. They are tourists at the grand events they have set in motion, and their role is as much to comment and reflect on them as it is to shape them. They inhabit a world in which gesture has more power than reality. It was, in retrospect, the perfect opera to dress up for, and for pretending to be more than we were.
Andrew Martin is the author of the novel Early Work and the story collection Cool for America.
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