Saturday, January 22, 2011

Nixon in China, the Opera

"Nixon in China", the Opera? HUH? When it opened in 1987, I thought the idea was laughably silly. Susie Chapin and I went to see it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and still thought it was pretty far fetched and silly. Guess we weren't very sophisticated, because now it is back and opening at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. They, (the sophisticated, artsy folks) are calling it the most important new opera of the last thirty years.

Because President Nixon asked Ron to be his "responsible person" in China to make the final preparations for his historic visit, the trip was a game changer for us, his family. China was so far away and so much about it was mysterious and unknown. Ron's first advance trip to China in January was a chance to learn some important lessons for the long stay required to prepare for the President's visit. He had found it almost impossible to read anything by the light of the thirty watt light bulbs furnished in all Chinese hotel rooms, but every room, every day, at every moment, had a thermos of steaming hot water. Since he was never much of a Chinese food fan to begin with, we knew that an extended stay dining on the local fare was problematic. So we had to do something to make his upcoming trip more comfortable. We decided to pack him a "survival suitcase." The girls and I went to the local grocery store a couple of days before his departure to stock his survival suitcase. We had talked a great deal about what should go in it, and our girls did not want to miss the adventure of putting the assortment together. We waited until the last minute to make sure things like snickers and fritos would be really fresh. It seemed logical for him to take along some tasty instant packages that only needed hot water: instant coffee, oatmeal, tea (he preferred Lipton to Jasmine) and hot chocolate. Since ice cubes didn't come with room service, and since they were going to be in-country in the middle of winter, he decided to take along a couple of ice trays so he could make his own ice cubes on his hotel window sill. (To see how well that plan worked, I refer you to CHINA CALLS, Paving the Way for Nixon's Historic Journey to China, by yours truly. We also bought fritos bean dip, chips, peanut butter, crackers, toothpaste, kleenex, pepto-bismol, Kaopectate, and Marlboro cigarettes, (he preferred them to Chunghwas).

The check out clerk appeared appalled at the junk food the woman with the three little girls was buying. The $264.59 grocery bill did not include anything fresh or perishable, but it did include six GE 150-watt light bulbs and six four-packs of squeezably soft toilet paper.

We probably should have tried explaining it to the check-out clerk, but I really didn't know what to say. Looking back, the whole advance for the advance was pretty overwhelming for all of us. And that must be why the thought of turning it into an opera was and still is surprising.

Ron and I were among those invited to the dress rehearsal of the re-opening of "Nixon in China" at the Met in late February. We were joined by our pals Dwight Chapin and Jerry Warren. Ray Zook from the White House travel office. Ambassadors Richard Solomon and Winston Lord from the National Security Council. Bette Bao Lord joined us for lunch. Ambassadors J. Stapleton Roy and Nicholas Platt represented the State Department. Most of the others were from the press corps, including Dan Rather and Helen Thomas. At the luncheon, folks were asked to share a memory from the trip and Helen, clearly forgetting where she was and why, told an LBJ anecdote.

When the opera first opened in 1987, television critic Marvin Kitman has been quoted as saying that it would take 50 years to sort out what happened when President Nixon went to China and the same was true of the opera, Nixon in China. He said "There are only three things wrong with 'Nixon in China,' One, the libretto, two the music, and three the direction. Outside of that, it's perfect." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Peter Sellers came up with the idea of the opera and John Adams composed the music. The production was lavish. The cast was huge. My favorite part, as I told set designer Adrianne Lobel, were the stage sets. I found the music to be quite boring and laborious. I longed for just one hummable tune. And just one memorable one would have been good, too. Alas, both were missing from the interminable long, double intermission marathon.

But some positive aspects are certainly worth mentioning, Baritone James Maddalena, who was also the original Nixon, was amazing as the President. He captured his walk and other mannerisms perfectly. Janice Kelly portrayed a kind and gracious Pat Nixon. Thank heavens for that. And what can I say about the portrayal of Henry Kissinger? He was a horny, lecherous and cruel villain. Why, one has to wonder. What was the point of THAT? Dwight Chapin had a chance to ask that question and the response was that while doing research, he (I won't mention his name because I don't know if he told Dwight in confidence) read Kissinger's book. He found Henry to be arrogant and self serving so he decided to do something to get even. (Do you suppose that was Oliver Stone's motivation in NIXON, or the the reason the folks who brought us Nixon/Frost did what they did? They just didn't like RN?) That's a fine way to document history, and I think it is wrong. I have read that "Nixon in China", the opera, will be around for years to come. So future audiences will think that's what Henry Kissinger was really like? That seems unfair.

Now lets talk about the portrayal of Chairman Mao. His was another interesting on-stage character. His interpreters, three women, were ready willing and able to offer ANY assistance he wanted. Some reviewers have referred to it as "servicing Mao." It was embarrassing. I actually didn't want to look. Perhaps that was what he actually required of his handlers. Shocking behavior! If true, he, Mao should be ashamed of himself.

I should mention that there were other good parts, too. Air Force One landing from the sky, the famous hand shake between the President and Chou En-lai, and Mrs. Nixon, dressed in red. She was the perfect bright spot in a drab landscape with the Chinese people all dressed monotonously the same.

A supposed re-enactment of the Chinese State Dinner followed the dress rehearsal at the Shun Lee West restaurant. It was an elaborate presentation of many, many dishes. I kept hoping to be pleased with every one that I tasted. I never was. A red wine was served and the traditional Mao Tai. Evidently Mao Tai is very rare these days and quite expensive. You may remember that Dan Rather called it "liquid razor blades." Ron returned from his trip with several bottles and it was always quite a moment as our pals sampled a sip. Poured into a saucer, and touched with a match, it burns. It always presented quite a display of good lamp or heater fuel.

President Nixon's trip to China in 1972 was truly a week that changed the world. Scholars and students will study it, probably forever. It was important. It was significant. It should never be trivialized.

1 comment:

John Kinnear said...