Nixon and Mao Left Me Cold

I’m only a casual baseball fan. I know what a squeeze play is, how to throw a split-finger fastball and what it means to hit to the opposite field. Hardcore fans, of course, can recite Cecil Fielder’s career ERA off the top of their head, and can judge how their favourite player will hit by the way his knees bend in the batter’s box.

If you take a baseball fan to a cricket match, they’ll get the general idea. They can understand how runs are scored, and players put out. But they’ll miss the layers of nuance and detail that they customarily recognize at the baseball diamond.

So it is with me and opera. I feel confident in my ability to review theatre, and even musicals, but opera is my cricket. In particular, I’m unfamiliar with the theatrical traditions of opera, and unable to evaluate the competency of the singing, a huge component of the experience. Nevertheless, onward.

Nixon Goes to China

About a week and a half ago, I was invited to the opening of “Nixon in China”, the latest production from Vancouver Opera. I wouldn’t normally jump at the chance to see opera, but I understood this to be one of the most important operas of the 20th century. Plus, I’ve never seen a modern opera before–this one premiered in 1987.

And it’s a big deal for Vancouver Opera. This is the Canadian debut for “Nixon in China”, and the production budget was the most they’d ever spent on a show–$1.4 million.

The opera tells the story of President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Just as many historical operas are populated with kings, queens, lords and ladies, so this one’s case includes Nixon and his wife, Chairman Mao and his wife, Chinese Premier Choi En-lai and Henry Kissinger.

From "Nixon in China"

The show is big. There’s the huge cast, with about 50 performers and a similarly large orchestra. The sets were sparse and iconic–oversized images of flags or the characters and stark red lines. The set design decisions all seemed a little obvious, and they neither served or detracted from the piece.

It’s big in duration, too. –three hours long, with two intermissions. There’s even a (murkily lit) ballet that interrupts the second act.

The libretto is a three-hour prose poem, concerned more with evocative images than with plot or storyline. That’s no surprise, as it’s written by poet Alice Goodman. John Adams’s music is rich and dense, drawing from sources as diverse as Wagner, Gershwin and contemporary film scores.

This seems to be the crux of where modern opera and musical theatre diverges. Opera sacrifices narrative cohesion and complex plots for sonic complexity and the freedom to be more abstract.

“I Came Here For Fun”

So what did I think? I’ve been thinking about the opera for the last week and a half–that’s why this review is so late. I’ve been probing my memory of the performance for some contemporary relevance. I can see how, in the dying days of the Cold War, “Nixon in China” might resonate. But how does it speak to me today?

I searched, but I couldn’t find much meaning. I enjoy abstract art, but only when I can extract some concrete messages or ideas from it. Ten days later, what can I take from “Nixon in China”? Maybe something along the lines of “sometimes cultural gaps are too broad, and can’t be bridged”? I left unsatisfied.

And I wasn’t alone. I overheard some season ticket holders sitting next to me, and one said to the other, “I have to keep reminding myself that I came here for fun”.

Then I think about this opera’s price tag: $1.4 million for four performances? Surely that’s at least three times the budget of a play at the Arts Club or Playhouse–a lot of money to spend on four nights of inaccessible art. Imagine distributing that money among twenty innovative theatre companies. At $50,000 a piece, you’d end up with some pretty awesome art.

Knowing it’s towering position in opera history, I really wanted to like and be moved by “Nixon in China”. Instead, it left me cold and weary. I rarely leave a theatre performance thinking, simply, “man, I didn’t get it”. Maybe I ought to just stick to baseball?


  1. I don’t think it’s just you.

    My opera-subscribing friend hated it terribly. He says it’s the first time he’s left before the end of an opera. I asked him if it was the work or the staging, and he went with both.

    Heck, never mind 20 innovative theatre companies, what do you think the $14,000 version of Nixon in China would be like? Think: serious amateur soloists, small amateur choir, 5-piece band, 500-seat performance space, four-night run. I’m probably not budgeting enough for stagehands, though.

    It’s not my idea. See also the the case of the $32-million Ring Cycle and the idea mooted there of a $32,000 Ring.

  2. It sounds like there may simply be some fundamental weaknesses in the opera and this production, but I also wonder whether the subject matter, now fading into history, seems substantially less relevant than it did in 1987.

    The phrase “Only Nixon could go to China” is probably unfamiliar to many people under 40. Even in 1987, with the Cold War not yet fully waning, it had some power. Today, with China’s ever-growing role as the world’s assembly line, and the days of hardline anti-communism in the past? Maybe not so much.

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