I visited China once believe it or not. I still don’t believe it as I’m fairly certain I’m the only person to visit there from my home town, and maybe the only one from there who ever will.
Ahead of my trip there was a lot of xenophobia on the news painting China as the United States next Cold War rival, but I find wherever I go the people are not their government and I left with images of polite subways and kids in light blue school outfits being ridden on the back of bikes with parents who love them. Admittedly, the soldiers at the Forbidden City did look like genetically modified super soldiers from a sci-if movie, but I didn’t feel intimidated, only impressed by their height and posture. They reminded me of the terra cotta warriors, maybe a story for another opera.
Nixon in China is about our presidents meeting with Mao. My one experience close to a politician was a collateral one, and would have ruined my day going down river except everything that happens when traveling is an opportunity to see or do something haven’t done before, so let’s just say my day wasn’t ruined as much as delayed.
On this particular day a political dignitary traveling by river forced all the other boats to pull over including the one I was on. I don’t think the boatman I hired set out to rip me off, but he took this opportunity to leave me on the river bank and disappear with the promise to be right back. Spoiler, he never came back. So there I sat in the sand weighing my options complicated by the fact that the further away from big cities few people speak english. While I couldn’t find anyone to talk to at first I did became somewhat of a celebrity as people kept asking to take their picture with me because I looked so different being American. I didn’t mind. I did however mind that I was out in the boonies near Shangsho with no idea of how to get back there and after an hour I was stewing mad.
Eventually a small boat with a group of charming young girls pulled up onto the sand and offered to give me a ride. I must have looked like one sad sap sitting on a bucket for them to stop. My rescuers were on their way to see a pop singer and asked me if I wanted to go along. Being a middle aged man that seemed weird in a couple ways so I declined and maybe this story is weaker for that decision. We’ll never know. They also offered to take me back to Shangsho. The boat pulled over for a downpour and while we waited, like teenagers from home they passed the time singing their favorite pop songs in a language I didn’t understand while a boatman ahead of us in a long rain smock smoked a cigarette in the foreground of the misty ‘five finger’ rock formation in the distance that is famously on the back of the 20 Yen. This memory of being stranded on a river in China lives forever with me, a folded yen, not only in my memory box but also tucked neatly into 1.3 billion Chinese wallets.
Nixon in China is a challenging opera, I love the first two acts, but the third act leaves me pretty fidgety and looking for the exit. My friend Rob and his wife Rié were playing clarinet.
The overture is exciting and I liked the repetitive music as a sort of undulating white noise that referenced the workers of china and the forward march of history. The individual instruments rise intermitingly higher with lots of winds, flutes, and horns.
On my visit while I must confess I know little of Mao’s history, a young university couple told me that their history was complicated and that while Mao’s crimes against humanity were terrible, without his policies they thought they would be like India being more impoverished and crowded. This seemed to be a more middle class point of view they were sharing. I can only report what they said. They do seem to share our own countries own trait for being optimistic about the future while viewing the ancestors and past, as complicated. They were great and took me to a shadow puppet theater to share some of their traditional culture with me.
I don’t know what Nixon learned on his travels, but for me travel is about widening ones perspective and finding the shared humanity through our differences. People make a place as much as a place makes a people, so for me the more places I can visit the more I can understand the other humans. To understand why some will leave you stranded on a river while others will pick you up might help me to know myself better and inspire me to return a good favor and in the future be one of the river picker-uppers.
So what is Nixon in China all about? It begins with a giant Mao lying in his coffin. A chorus behind him sings his philosophy of three main rules of discipline and the 8 points of attention. Premier chou en-lai waits to greet Nixon who lands and sings of his excitement of the moment. He greets mao who sings about philosophy and lets the others handle the details. Ms. Nixon accepts an elephant (that is not unique but made by the workers with a hundred more that are just as good. She sings poetically and the about the snow falling and the cold and memories of home and that history is not formed by people but is what is and will be what it will be regardless. They and the audience watch a ballet with a peasant woman being beaten who later rises up with others against their oppressors. Ms. Nixon screams at the terribleness of the beginning. Both Nixon and Mao recount their younger days that led up to this historic moment. Ms Nixon sings of mustard and Ms. Mao declares watch us dance motherfuckers (that I thought in 85 when this was written held a shocking punctuation, but now didn’t work as strongly).
Notes on the production
Composer………………………………. John Adams
Richard Nixon………………………… Sean Anderson
Pat Nixon……………………………..… Rainelle Krause
Chairman Mao…………………………Cameron Schutza
Madame Mao…………………………..Teresa Castillo
Henry Kissinger……………………… Joseph Barron
Premier Chou En Lai……………… John Viscardi
1st secretary………………………..… Liz Culpepper
2nd secretary…………………….….. Emily Marvosh
3rd secretary………………………..…Edith Dowd
Conductor……………………………… Richard Tang Yuk