Friends, a confession: I am an experienced critic of theater and music who has never been to the opera. Well, not until this past weekend, anyway, when I broke my opera-less streak with John Adams’s Nixon in China, staged at the McCarter Theatre as part of the 15th annual Princeton Festival of performance arts.
Quite an introduction to the genre, this production.
The story recounts an odd moment in the history of American diplomacy, rendering it grander and more, well, operatic. Adams’s score (conducted by Richard Tang Yuk) and Alice Goodman’s libretto (directed by Steven LaCosse) are both full of high drama, with occasional moments of levity or self-conscious prosaicness. And Jonathan Dahm Robertson has designed a Chinese setting that mingles rigid realness with evocative abstraction in ways that mirror the peculiar marriage of modern Communism with ancient Asian culture.
I was variously stunned by the show’s towering drama, occasionally mystified by its denser narrative moments, awestruck by the abilities of these performers, and self-conscious about my ability to respond to the many intricate facets of the production. Are the subtleties of operatic voices critical to analysis of the performative work of the show? I don’t suppose I can expect much movement and dance if the performers must sing with such precision? Am I supposed to ignore the fact that the Chinese characters are being sung by non-Asian performers?
On the whole, I found myself impressed by the grandeur that is this production. Adams and Goodman transformed a moment of high political theater from 1972 into a deeply introspective opera, and the team behind The Princeton Festival’s production have embraced and accentuated the psychological density of this story. It is a production that manages to be at once intriguing and baffling, gripping and alienating, just like the world of international diplomacy it sets out to explore.
The show’s plot follows Nixon’s (Sean Anderson) trip to Peking, where he and his wife, Pat (Rainelle Krause) meet first with the Chinese Premier, Chou En-Lai (John Viscardi), and then with Chairman Mao (Cameron Schutza), who by this point is approaching 80 years old and nearing death, more of a reflective philosopher than a fiery revolutionary.
Over the course of the show, Nixon and Mao discuss that state of the world, the Nixons are entertained at a dinner and ballet, and Mrs. Nixon is shown around town, but “Nixon in China” is less interested in the events of history than in the motivations and fears underlying them. The President travels from cocksure to completely drained, finding that China is a land separated from the US by far more than half a globe. On Mao’s turf, Nixon discovers ideas and customs jarring to his American ideologies, and struggles to make effective diplomacy in their wake.
The early portions of the production work to unite the grand ideas of global politics with the mundane affairs of everyday life. Adams’s score opens with a stately sweep as the chorus sings an epic hymn that sanctifies great victories of the people over what they treat as their powerful oppressors. But the proceedings quickly become understated, and the first conversations we hear are Nixon and En-Lai singing small talk about the flight from D.C. Later, Henry Kissinger (Joseph Barron) will sing with great gusto to En-Lai, “Where is the toilet?”
Here and throughout the show there is a self-conscious clashing of form and content, as if all involved are aware that the event of two world leaders shaking hands may not be quite as consequential as history books make it out to be. LaCosse’s direction feel at times stolid—more like a meditative game of chess than a musical event—but this production suggests that that may very well be the appropriate treatment of the strictly choreographed realm of global politics.
Still, the production’s high point is its most grandiose moment. Enraged at what she considers conciliatory Chinese actions toward the American President, Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing (Teresa Castillo) launches into boisterous and impassioned song about her lasting commitment to Communist ideals. As ornamental scenery is stripped away, the stage floods with a chorus of idealists, and Madame Mao leads them in the defiant and proud wagging of their Little Red Books. Castillo’s soprano is stunning in its range and its power. Madame Mao is furious in this scene, but Castillo remains in complete control, moving seamlessly from steely and pointed to great heights of anger.
The show’s late portions get dense, challenging, and not altogether palatable. The last few scenes feature the most mundane passages of Adams’s score, and LaCosse’s efforts to juxtapose the psychology of Nixon and Mao is clunky. After nearly three hours, the production is in no hurry to summon its final curtain.
It also seems fair to question the racial and ethnic dimensions of the production’s casting, which features very few Chinese performers. Familiar excuses of “I suppose there aren’t many Chinese opera singers,” are strained. Controversies surrounding yellowface abound in theater and film, and other productions of Nixon in China have been taken to task for the practice. The casting should give us pause when statistics demonstrate that API stage representation is still severely lacking.
The fact of a cast that seems largely white makes this production in certain ways mirror concepts of Western imperialism that are often latent in projects billed as diplomacy. It looks like Chinese people have been pushed aside in the China of the production. The show undercuts Nixon’s diplomatic success, but this production’s Peking, populated as it is with mostly non-Asian people, insinuates that the West has established an invasive foothold on foreign shores.
Ultimately, this has been an affecting and intriguing first foray into opera. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve found a peculiar first opera for myself—not Mozart or Wagner, but a living American composer, and no great mythic hero or scorned lover as its subject, but Richard Nixon. There is something enticing here in the at-times strange and unsettling psychological abstraction that the production is eager to embrace. Photos and clips of other Nixon in China productions reveal a stronger tendency toward realness in staging and expression, but The Princeton Festival team are far more interested in exploring conceptual ideas like leadership, legend, and clashing cultural zeitgeists.
I’m glad I took the opera leap and encourage you to check it out for yourself. What other opportunity are you going to have to hear a former National Security Advisor sing out for directions to the men’s room in a booming baritone?