News Has a Kind of Mystery

When "Nixon in China" premiered in 1987, it got mixed reviews. Some critics thought it was too bland; others thought it was too fluffy. And above all, the subject matter was strange. Whereas many operas are inspired by Greek mythology or exotic romances, this opera takes its cues from the newsreel, focusing on Nixon’s ground-breaking 1972 visit to Beijing and the beginning of America’s rapprochement with China. Having a man as controversial as Nixon for a hero only made the opera more complicated. Was it a satire? Were we supposed to take it seriously? Or worse yet, did the opera take itself so seriously that it became a caricature by accident?

In the opening act, bright saxophones and brasses brand Nixon with the big band sounds of the 1970s. "News has a kind of mystery," he sings. And perhaps a little too earnestly, "I know America is good at heart. An old cold warrior / Piloting towards an unknown shore." But there are other moments when he comes across as neither idealistic nor cynical, but just eerily aware of his own human limitations. "We live in an unsettled time," the president sings. "Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?"

Composer John Adams gives us Nixon as a visionary with very human doubts, but does he do the same for Nixon’s counterparts, Chairman Mao Tse-tung and his wife? For an audience looking for a nuanced portrayal, they prove to be a little more problematic. The Chairman is cast as a walking ideological system who both inhabits the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution and controls the Orwellian China of the American imagination. Madame Mao is a power-hungry Lady Macbeth, whose shrieking aria "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung" is packed with dissonant tritones and self-glorifying slogans.

"Nixon in China" may be about a ground-breaking contact between two warring cultures, but it is told through the eyes and pathos of the American adventurer Nixon, not the Chinese Mao. In the course of the opera, Nixon’s complexity makes him more than just a stand-in for an ideology. Even as Mao and Madame Mao are given the same space for private doubts, they never quite become independent from their political personas. John Adams claims he gave Madame Mao "her private fantasies, her erotic desires, and even a certain tragic awareness," but even these moments aren’t free of their orientalizing tendencies. They are reminiscent of the West’s troubling news coverage of Cixi, the hapless Qing empress who was painted by journalists as both a reactionary politician and an object of erotic fantasy.


In this way, Mao and Madame Mao are not just reduced into political cartoons; they embody the same myths that Americans had already come to expect from media outlets like CNN. Their flattening out tells us just as much about the spirit of the moment as do the nuances we see in Nixon. "Opera in itself is a media event," says Adams in an interview with the Metropolitan Opera. "Only the media involved are the orchestra and the voice and what goes on stage. So this is a media event about a media event."

For those of us who remember Bush better than Nixon and Syria better than the Soviet Union, watching an opera that treats Nixon’s visit like a real-time television headline may feel a bit strange. To the modern viewer, that event is history, not news. But for composer John Adams, I suspect that writing "Nixon in China" was meaningful precisely because he had people like us in mind. He didn’t want to write a satire because that would minimize the characters to mere political cartoons. But he also couldn’t write an epic, as that would just make a hero out of Nixon and a villain out of Mao. His desire to avoid these genres does not, however, mean that he was trying to give us the real versions of these characters, or that he was even interested in finding the "real" in them at all. For John Adams, the appeal of the characters was not their interior being, but rather their exterior selves as captured and imagined by the media.

"I think Americans have forgotten what a dark, looming menace China was portrayed to be," Adams reminds us in an interview with the Metropolitan Opera. "Today China is this strangely schizophrenic society, a hectic capitalist economy with an almost uncontrollable urge to develop." If "Nixon in China" had been written today, the story and the cast of characters would be radically different. China has become so much more like America, and America is now so much more like China. The caricatures would have been impossible, in part because the way the media reaches audiences has evolved. Because of its evolution, it’s much more difficult for the media to speak with a unified voice. Gone are the Cultural Revolution loudspeakers and the American living room televisions, to be replaced by Weibo and Facebook and QQ and Twitter. So while we might look back at a CNN opera like "Nixon in China", we should expect an Instagram oratorio for the future.


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