Posted by: greercn | February 12, 2011

Nixon In China

Opera brings out a certain ambivalence in me. I love some of the greats and I hate quite a few, too. As John Adams’ “Nixon In China” provided the lightbulb moment when I first enjoyed and saw the point of opera, I hesitated about seeing this. Why risk challenging a perfect memory?

The Metropolitan Opera’s live satellite feed from New York to the Stratford Picturehouse (and quite a few other cinemas) was a perfect production. Conducted by John Adams himself, Peter Sellars’ earthy reworking is a glorious new version of America’s best opera ever.

So much texture and richness is here. Every word and movement seems to really count and works towards creating the whole.

You can’t challenge as breath-taking an image as a 747 dropping into the second scene. It stunned me in 1987, startled me again in 1995 and still sent shivers up my spine in 2011. Few images have  such visual power. Even knowing it was coming, this time, it was astonishing to watch.

Mark Morris brings a sexy gutsiness to the choreography and the Adrianne Lobel sets are superb. 

There is a weird feeling about seeing an opera that is based on events you remember seeing on the news. At the time, Nixon was vilified in the press for going to China. Even in those pre-Watergate days, he wasn’t popular. The Vietnam War was at its height.

James Maddalena sings Nixon with a touching sense of all the man’s flaws. Janis Kelly brings a sweet innocence to Pat Nixon. Robert Brubaker has a grand sense of occasion as Mao and Russell Braun manages to communicate the mental strengths and physical weaknesses of Chou En-lai.

You are in Peking in 1972, rather than in the renamed Beijing. All four hours, including two intermissions, flew by. The audience loved in and paid attention, throughout.

Richard Paul Funk has a sly sleaziness as Henry Kissinger. But the whole show is stolen by Mrs Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, with Kathleen Kim’s extraordinary power and soaring voice. All the voices are wonderful, but Kim soars and adds new colour to this role.

The story is worthy of opera and the questions asked in song – which include the protagonists asking if their achievements matter – are deeply satisfying, intellectually and emotionally.

I am always intrigued by who is remembered for which part of any collaboration. When you think of Elton John, you know that Bernie Taupin wrote the music, but you think of the singer and lyrics first. Yet in this opera, Alice Goodman wrote an amazing libretto that has real historical integrity as well as entertainment and education value. But the programme in front of me says John Adams’ “Nixon In China” – without the apostrophe I feel must be added – and Goodman is way down the list.

Can I applaud Alice Goodman’s amazing words? They are superb. But I am still curious about why we think about the composer of the music here, yet of the writer of the words in other songs. Celebrity is a funny old thing. This opera series continues and there are details on the website at


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