Nixon in China - John Adams
Adams, John. Nixon in China. Opera. Libretto by Alice Goodman. Orchestra of St. Luke's / Edo de Waart. Audio. YouTube (M0fax) 12 Sept. 2015.*
Time: February 1972.
Place: In and around Beijing (then known as Peking)
At Peking Airport, contingents of the Chinese military await the arrival of the American presidential aircraft "Spirit of '76", carrying Nixon and his party. The military chorus sings "The Three Main Rules of Discipline" and "The Eight Points of Attention". After the aircraft touches down, Nixon emerges with Pat Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The president exchanges stilted greetings with the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai, who heads the welcoming party. Nixon speaks of the historical significance of the visit, and of his hopes and fears for the encounter ("News has a kind of mystery"). The scene changes to Chairman Mao's study, where the Chairman awaits the arrival of the presidential party. Nixon and Kissinger enter with Chou, and Mao and the president converse in banalities as photographers record the scene. In the discussion that follows, the westerners are confused by Mao's gnomic and frequently impenetrable comments, which are amplified by his secretaries and often by Chou. The scene changes again, to the evening's banquet in the Great Hall of the People. Chou toasts the American visitors ("We have begun to celebrate the different ways") Nixon responds: ("I have attended many feasts"), after which the toasts continue, as the atmosphere becomes increasingly convivial. Nixon, a politician who rose to prominence on anti-communism, announces: "Everyone, listen; just let me say one thing. I opposed China, I was wrong".
Pat Nixon is touring the city, with guides. Factory workers present her with a small model elephant which, she delightedly informs them, is the symbol of the Republican Party which her husband leads. She visits a commune where she is greeted enthusiastically, and is captivated by the children's games that she observes in the school. "I used to be a teacher many years ago", she sings, "and now I'm here to learn from you". She moves on to the Summer Palace, where in a contemplative aria ("This is prophetic") she envisages a peaceful future for the world. In the evening the presidential party, as guests of Mao's wife Chiang Ch'ing, attends the Peking Opera for a performance of a political ballet-opera The Red Detachment of Women. This depicts the downfall of a cruel and unscrupulous landlord's agent (played by an actor who strongly resembles Kissinger) at the hands of brave women revolutionary workers. The action deeply affects the Nixons; at one point Pat rushes onstage to help a peasant girl she thinks is being whipped to death. As the stage action ends, Chiang Ch'ing, angry at the apparent misinterpretation of the piece's message, sings a harsh aria ("I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung"), praising the Cultural Revolution and glorifying her own part in it. A revolutionary chorus echoes her words.
On the last evening of the visit, as they lie in their respective beds, the chief protagonists muse on their personal histories in a surreal series of interwoven dialogues. Nixon and Pat recall the struggles of their youth; Nixon evokes wartime memories ("Sitting round the radio"). Mao and Chiang Ch'ing dance together, as the Chairman remembers "the tasty little starlet" who came to his headquarters in the early days of the revolution. As they reminisce, Chiang Ch'ing asserts that "the revolution must not end". Chou meditates alone; the opera finishes on a thoughtful note with his aria "I am old and I cannot sleep", asking: "How much of what we did was good?" The early morning birdcalls are summoning him to resume his work, while "outside this room the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass".