A Tricky Situation
John Adams’s opera Nixon in China speaks both to its times and ours, John Fulljames, director of the new production by Scottish Opera, tells Mark Brown
In 1972 US president Richard Nixon made a week-long, official visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC); the first such visit by a US head of state. The stakes were extremely high.
If successful, the visit could create, for the first time, a US/China trade agreement. An improvement in US/Chinese diplomatic and trading relations could also lead to tensions in the relationship between the PRC and the Soviet Union (an important policy objective for Washington in the midst of the Cold War).
Add to that the possibility of China intervening diplomatically in Vietnam, thereby assisting the US to withdraw its troops from the war torn country (another crucial objective for Nixon). It isn’t difficult to see why the visit took on such a historic significance, both within the US and internationally.
Nixon arrived in Beijing with his wife, Pat, who, with a large American press corps in tow, would undertake a mini tour of China. When he touched down in China, he still was not certain that he would be granted an all-important meeting with Mao Tse-tung.
So iconic did Nixon’s visit become that the American composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman wrote an opera about it in the 1980s. First staged, in Houston, Texas, in 1987, Nixon in China won immediate acclaim for the ambition of Adams’s score and for its inclusion of a ballet section choreographed by the rising star of American dance Mark Morris.
Now, some 48 years on from the events, Scottish Opera (in co-production with the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid) is staging Adams’s famous piece. The production will be staged by English opera director John Fulljames, who is artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera.
When I meet Fulljames at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, in the midst of rehearsals, his enthusiasm for Adams’s opera is palpable. I ask him if, just days after the US presidential State of the Union address, in which Donald Trump made great play of his abrasive approach to economic relations with China, he feels contemporary global politics looking over his shoulder.
Opera has always had a sharp political relevance, the director says. “It’s easy for us to think of opera as something historic and remote. That’s because the canon is so weighted to the 19th century.”
However, he continues, in the 19th century opera was very often, “both an emotional and a political art form. There are lots of examples of operas by Verdi, for example Un Ballo in Maschera [A Masked Ball], which were hot potatoes, in political terms, at the time.”
Verdi’s 1859 opera was originally based upon the real life events surrounding the assassination of the Swedish king Gustav III in 1792. Under pressure from the censors, who did not take well to the story of the relatively recent killing of a European head of state, Verdi was forced to relocate the tale to colonial Boston.
All-in-all, as Fulljames points out, Verdi’s opera was very much at the sharp end of the contemporary politics of mid-19th-century Europe. Indeed, it was more contentious than anything Adams’s Nixon in China might have to say about the American presidency or, even, the Vietnam War.
Staging Nixon in China in Scotland in 2020 is, the director suggests, a very different proposition from presenting it in the US in 1987. Scottish audiences today, he believes, have a distance from the events that allow them to see the opera in the same kind of historical context as they would consider a work by Verdi or Mozart.
“What’s interesting about this piece is that, having once been contemporary, like the 19th-century operas were, it is now distanced from us”, says Fulljames. “Indeed, we’re dealing [in Nixon in China] with the events of another century, which took place almost 50 years ago.
“What must, for an audience in Houston, Texas in 1987, have felt like a docudrama – seeing events that they had watched on television in their living rooms being played out on an opera stage – is something completely different in Scotland in 2020; it’s a different part of the world, in a different time.”
This difference in place and time opens the opera out for the Scottish Opera audience, says the director. It does this, he contends, in two ways.
“Firstly, it allows us to connect to the essence of what’s going on, to the myth at the heart of the story [of Nixon’s visit to China]. It’s the value of perspective.
“You see truth differently because you’re further away from the picture. Arguably, that’s what opera does brilliantly anyway.
“Un Ballo in Maschera is brilliant, not because of the immediate, contemporary resonances in the 19th century, but because, at its heart, there’s a myth about political leadership which resonates across time. Opera is brilliant at telling emotional stories in a universal way. It liberates things from their context and finds the bigger picture.”
Which leads Fulljames to the other reason why Scottish audiences in 2020 should find Nixon in China such a rewarding opera. Liberated from the political specifics of Nixon’s visit, we will find, he says, that Adams’s 1987 piece is as much about great emotional and existential questions as was Verdi’s opera in 1859.
“Nixon in China is about who gets to construct narratives, and who gets to control history”, he comments. “The thing that, in the end, makes both Mao and Nixon tragic figures in this opera is that they both are aware that they have no control over their legacy.
“At the beginning of the opera, we might think that they are the two most powerful people in the world, but, ultimately, they’re utterly powerless in the face of death. Other people, such as the media and historians, are going to control their narratives in a way that leaves them naked.”
Although, for Fulljames, the power of the opera lies, first-and-foremost, in its universalism and its capacity to speak beyond its specific history, he does accept that audiences are bound to see contemporary political parallels. “I completely agree that there are lots of resonances between the story then and our world now”, he says.
“Nixon’s visit was politics staged for the media. The entire trip was about the construction of television images and photographs for voters back home.
“The audience wasn’t a Chinese audience, it was the American voter. It’s not that it was ‘fake news’, but it was constructed news.”
If the events depicted in Adams’s opera chime with our 21st-century media culture, the director also thinks the character of Pat Nixon finds very definite resonances in our contemporary modern world. In contrast with Nixon’s day, when the “First Lady” was expected to be relatively silent, it is not unusual for the wives of US presidents to become political figures in their own right.
“In Pat Nixon we see a consummate politician, who is by far the most eloquent character on stage. We can’t help but see in her Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.”
If the character of Pat Nixon becomes a representative figure (more akin to the last two Democratic Party “first ladies”, perhaps, than to Melania Trump), the opera throws up other questions of representation. In Fulljames production, the characters are, for the most part, played by performers who are not ethnically representative of them.
For example, Nixon is played by African-American baritone Eric Greene. Meanwhile, the role of Mao Tse-tung is performed by white, English tenor Mark Le Brocq.
Such casting in the theatre can lead to trouble. In 2017, a London production of English dramatist Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love (a typically abstract, metaphorical drama which is nominally set in ancient China), which was performed by white actors, found itself accused of “yellowface” casting.
That little episode says as much, perhaps, about the enduring demand, in England, for theatrical “naturalism” as it does about notions of political correctness. Fulljames believes that opera has a duty to be more ethnically representative of its audience (in Nixon in China, Greene and Le Brocq will be joined on-stage by South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee, who plays Madame Mao).
This does not necessarily mean, he continues, that it has to be naturalistic in its representation of characters’ ethnicity. Given the breadth of the subjects Nixon in China evokes for modern audiences (including, of course, the foreign policy of America’s first black president, Barack Obama), it is, he says, “really rich to have an American president played by a black singer.
“That means that both the ethnicity of the performer is present in the performance and also the ethnicity of the character. That richness is something that the opera stage offers, because it’s not a realistic art form.”
Much is said about Adams’s being a “minimalist” composer, as if that, somehow, makes his music more challenging than that of, say, Mozart or Verdi. Fulljames considers such opinions to be entirely erroneous.
“There is certainly a post-Second World War school of German modernist music which rips music apart”, he acknowledges, “but Adams doesn’t emerge from that tradition.
“He’s in the same tradition as [fellow American minimalists] Steve Reich and Philip Glass. That is music which is fundamentally easy to listen to…. If you put on a Philip Glass opera in London or New York, it sells out.”
Indeed, says the director, “Adams is far more playful than Reich or Glass. It feels like he was messing around with real world sounds. When Air Force One lands in Beijing at the beginning of the opera, you feel like you hear the engines.
“He’s also messing around with operatic history”, he adds. “That’s what’s extraordinary about this piece.
“It’s a grand opera that apes opera’s traditions of great arias. You feel the Queen of the Night [from Mozart’s Magic Flute] in Madam Mao.
“You feel a great political Verdi baritone, like Boccanegra, in Nixon. You get fantastic operatic choruses. You get a ballet, like those you see in grand French opera.”
Adams’s playfulness extends throughout the opera. Indeed, I suggest, audiences might be surprised, given the subject matter, to find that Nixon in China has a strong comic dimension.
Fulljames agrees. “I was fortunate enough to have a beer with John Adams when I was first working on this”, he remembers. “I was expecting him to say ‘get the politics right’, but he didn’t.
“What he said was, ‘the most important thing to get right is the humour.’ It’s a delicate humour that comes from detailed observation and from us recognising ourselves and our frailties. It mustn’t be overplayed. It must feel true.”
Nixon in China plays the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 18-22, and the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, February 27-29: scottishopera.org.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on February 16, 2020
© Mark Brown