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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Nixon in China Artifact

This year’s long-overdue Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’ Nixon in China (introduced by the Houston Grand Opera in 1987) is a big deal. It is coming (simulcast) to a cinema or auditorium near you this Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. (A reprise performance is planned for early March.) In Nixon, Adams moved well beyond minimalism, incorporating wafts of big band jazz; didactic, politicized Chinese ballet; and  reflective airs bordering on melancholy. Adams and librettist Alice Goodman teamed up with great deftness to portray characters that almost never became caricatures—quite an accomplishment considering the principals: Mao, Chou Enlai, Chiang Ch’ing (Mao’s wife), Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon Agonistes himself.

The bamboo curtain was cinched tightly around China before Nixon’s seminal visit in 1972 (think of today’s North Korea). Nixon—the bête noir of anyone left of center—deeply offended many Republicans with his visit—the price of which was to boot Taiwan (then known as the Republic of China) out of the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. itself. (Taiwan still hasn’t gotten back in; it needs China’s Security Council vote for readmission.)

Presidential Material: A Li River boat cruise
Wig & Pen Stumbles upon a Nixon in China Artifact Several years ago, this writer walked into a drab, two-room commercial gallery in a waterfront community on the outskirts of the southern Chinese city of Guilin, gateway to the Li River. (Although most Chinese have never visited the city, many American presidents have. Chinese hosts consider a boat cruise for top visiting dignitaries past the river's “floating-world” karst outcroppings as de rigueur.)

The gallery offered much forgettable artwork, but then I saw something really special. It was a framed gloss photo of the Nixons in 1972 on a Li River tour boat surrounded by a dozen crew members in cloned satin uniforms. As a friend and I admired the photograph, the gallery’s owner, a woman in her mid-40s who spoke no English, pointed to a uniformed teenage girl standing just behind the Nixons. Then she pointed to herself. In 1972 she had been an eyewitness to a historical watershed; 34 years later she had traveled far beyond, along a propulsive river of cultural and economic transformation.

A helping from the Met's Nixon in China Banquet Scene:

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