By Aaron Boehlert
Last weekend I went to see Nixon in China at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The opera was fantastic, but beforehand we stopped at trendy eatery Nota Bene for dinner (a great choice if you’re going to the Centre because it is right up the street). The menu abounds with Italian classics (pesto, osso bucco) as well as some modern, international options (tuna tartare, trout sashimi). There is also a ‘Pre-Theatre’ three-course prix fixe, available only on days when there is a performance at the Four Seasons Centre. Dinner was excellent, and we walked to the Centre with plenty of time to spare.
The performance was spectacular. Before the lights dim and the orchestra tunes, the curtains are opened to reveal an orderly group of Communist soldiers moving soothingly in time. The lights dim, cell phones are silenced, and from the ceiling descend retro television sets depicting original footage of Nixon’s plane landing while the army sings the 1930’s Communist song The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention. A staircase emerges from house left, and Richard and Pat Nixon (Robert Orth and Maria Kanyova, respectively) descend, followed, of course, by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Thomas Hammons). Nixon poses for cameras with Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China (played by Chen-Ye Yuan). Nixon sings of his hopes of this visit. Zhou, Kissinger and Nixon later visit with Mao (Adrian Thompson), a decrepit, philosophical and slightly insane old man who has not lost his fire. In Mao’s study, Nixon attempts to discuss politics, but Mao changes the subject to philosophy, two songs whose topics are fairly similar but that can’t seem to reach any compromise. Chaos erupts, followed shortly by all of the politicians in the room (including Kissinger who angrily gives Mao the middle finger). In the evening of that same day, the main characters, as well as Mao’s wife, Jiang Quing (Marisol Montalvo) meet for dinner in the Great Hall of the People, surrounded by military and media figures. There is much congratulation and toasting, and Nixon, empowered by copious amounts of alcohol, proposes a toast in the name of peace.
During intermission, I took a moment to admire the architecture of the Four Seasons Centre and to reflect upon the opera. The Centre is amazing: designed by Jack Diamond, its glass façade makes the somewhat thin main hall seem larger-than-life. Its sweeping stairs (reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘six inch steps’) and horizontal wooden slats, as well as its use of glass and incorporation of sculpture art are somewhat ethereal. The opera was complimentarily contemporary: its dramatic, minimal red set and minimalist and practical lyrical quality accentuate its symbolism and nuance. It is not as mechanically perfect as a traditional piece – which is refreshing – but does not entirely reflect the mechanical nature of Chinese culture.
Act Two begins with a focus on Pat Nixon’s historic tour of Peking, where she reflects on her early life and begins to truly understand Chinese culture. She concludes by saying that she was meant to come to China, and turns towards the future. That night, the American party attends Jiang Quing’s propaganda play, The Red Detachment of Women. It shows an enslaved peasant saved from her master by the heroic women of the Red Army. The main characters are drawn into the opera, and here their political views are fully displayed. Pat Nixon defends the poor, abused slave girl, Henry Kissinger seems to agree with the abusive landlord, and Madame Mao tries to save the peasants but comes full circle to be more brutal than their master. The work is eventually upstaged by politics, hinting at the chasm between portrayal and reality.
Act three is comprised of the Americans’ last night in Peking. The characters realize that there will be no epiphany, no great decision made towards the fate of intercontinental relations – ironic, because this is an epiphany in itself. They return to their chambers and reflect on their lives. Nixon thinks about his time in World War Two, but Mao goes further, asking the question: ‘How much of what we did was good?’ The question that defines the work and this historical event.
Perhaps more so than any other political opera, this work raises some significant political and philosophical quandaries. We see the past, present and future of politics, and somehow we come to a deeper understanding of the result of Nixon’s visit to China.
On an unrelated note, if you do go to see this, or any other opera or performance at the Four Seasons Centre, wear something appropriate. I saw seven hoodies and at least a dozen pairs of Levi’s; this is one occasion wherein it is expected that you wear at very least a sport coat.