"Nixon in China" Debuts at the MET
Standing in the midst of Lincoln Center, the blue-lit fountain to one side and the five arched windows of the Metropolitan Opera House in front, it’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t want to don a dress or sport a blazer instead of their usual business-casual. The crystal chandelier hanging from the lobby ceiling is enough in itself to demand some type of deference to the occasion.
I found myself transfixed in that very outdoor position last Wednesday at the premiere of Nixon in China, about to enter the Met for the first time. After living in New York for two years, it was time to check some of those tourist items off my to-do list. But, yes, I’ll admit that after seeing the movie I Am Love and falling for composer John Adam’s score I had also wanted to see what he would do with an opera. Yes, I was hoping to get a little culture on a weeknight. Yes, I wanted the occasion to dress up for its premiere.
Nixon in China, John Adam’s opera isn’t quite brand new. First performed in 1987 in Houston, it tells the story of Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. In the real world, this event was the handshake heard internationally, the meeting of our All-American, capitalist president with the leader and dictator of a China, one of the major communist countries. All this while we were in the middle of fighting a Cold War. What came out of this meeting was cooperation rather than a battle between superheroes and villains. The roots of our current relationship with China stem from that night, February 21, 1972. Now, close to forty years after the meeting and twenty-five after Nixon’s first showing, it has finally come to The Met.
The Met itself is like a sprawling museum if you give yourself time to look through each floor. The top tiers have glass-encased costumes—theatrical satin gowns with so many frills that they’d look out of place at prom. Spiraling down the staircase to the bottom floor is where the real history begins. A wall of portraits extends across an entire large wall in celebration of the Met’s 125 anniversary. Most of them are in black and white. There are a lot of men in beards with large, painted eyebrows. The effect is similar to standing on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but here you can see the actual faces of opera stars staring right at you.
My date and I encountered few people downstairs. There were a couple of older women in long furs, a late-twenties girl who dressed as though she’d just gotten off work, some older men in suits. Most of them were quiet as they wove through the small gallery. But the tour through each floor of the opera gave me an overview of my fellow guests as well as a brief operatic history. The odd, though not unexpected, thing about the premiere wasn’t just that I was one of the few people who’d bothered to actually dress up but that I was also one of the few people under twenty-five in the audience. There were professional-looking men in their thirties—some of them wore suits at least—their dates, the elder crowd, and a smattering of twelve-year-old girls. If it were a Friday night I’d say the under 25’s were out clubbing.
Soon after Nixon in China started, I realized that the unfortunate thing about opera is that you can’t pay attention to everything at once. Because plot is central to understanding the sung metaphors and changing relationships, you have to understand the words. At the Met, electronic title screens, something I had never seen before, were placed in front of each seat to clear up any sentences that have become lost within melody or language. Though Nixon in China is in English—theoretically understandable—I have to admit that I relied on this technology quite a bit throughout the performance. But looking down at the screen meant not seeing what happened on stage or in the pit as John Adams himself conducted. Listening to the words meant that the orchestral music was lost in the background.
So I had to pick and choose the moments to hear the jokes or to look onstage. The opera’s opening where a large plane is lowered from the ceiling, the stage becoming a runway piece by piece, was one of the moments not to miss. However, the bulk of the first act takes place in the meeting between Mao Tse-Tung (Robert Brubaker) and Richard Nixon (James Maddalena). They sit in chairs with minimal movement from them or the rest of the cast, making it easier to look away for a while. The later scenes where Pamela Nixon (Janis Kelly) and, Mao’s infamous wife, Chian Ch’ing (Kathleen Kim), take center stage are riveting. In the beginning of the second act, Mrs. Nixon’s tour of China is truly funny. After receiving a statue of an elephant from glassworkers in Peking, she references her own Republican party back home. Mrs. Nixon is shown a school of identical Chinese students sitting blankly in front of a blackboard and remarks, “Here are some children having fun.”
The libretto in that scene may be at one of the most enjoyable moments during the opera but the most visually stunning part comes just after that. It’s an extended dance sequence that illustrates the history and rise of communist China. In the beginning, four identically dressed and styled women danced in such perfect unison that I felt like I was looking at moving pop art. Though choreography is certainly a common fixture to any play whether straight theater, musical, or opera, a dance this intricate is truly something unique to see on the stage of an opera house.
If a night at the opera can be magical, it’s a spell that is broken by the time the applause dies down. I drank an energy drink to stay awake for the third act and someone’s iPod turned on loudly enough to hear during each pause in the music on stage. It was midnight when we finally left the theater. I ran into the bathroom to change out of my heels and into boots that would keep me from slipping on the ice coating the sidewalks. A woman wearing furs stood outside the Met waiting for car to arrive and take her home. We headed down into the subway where a flautist had set himself up playing John Adams tunes to the crowd.