Nixon in China
Her Majesty’s Theatre
Natural minor scales rise ominously beneath a blood-red curtain. Slowly, a chorus in Zhongshan suits emerges from between the fiery drapes and intones Mao Tse-tung’s “Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points for Attention,” the fundamental guidelines of the Chinese Red Army from 1928. Dropping subito piano and slowly approaching the audience, the chorus chants: “The people are the heroes now, Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.”
The awesome serenity of this opening evokes the mythology that China projected both to itself and to the West during the purges of the Cultural Revolution. It was into the long aftermath of this slaughter that Richard Nixon descended in 1972 and introduced a new layer of mediatised, political heroism through the broadcasting of the presidential visit (as Nixon (Barry Ryan) sings, “News has a kind of mystery”). Victorian Opera’s production is faithful to a third layer of mythology—after China’s propaganda and Western mediatisation—that John Adams and Peter Sellars inaugurated in 1987 to reflect the larger-than life image of the figures shown on the receiving end of the television. Victorian Opera’s production achieves a high level of historical accuracy in design and performance, from Mao and Nixon’s covered arm-chairs by set designer Richard Roberts, to Mrs Nixon’s ’70s outfits by costume designer Esther Marie Hayes, to the general recreation at Her Majesty’s Theatre of the opera’s previous incarnations by director Roger Hodgman. Even coming from a generation that didn’t grow up in the shadow of Nixon and Mao, the opera appeared relevant in its presentation of the conflict of humanism and political principle and the mediatisation of politics.
The drama of the first act relies on the audience’s acceptance, through their own experience of the era, of the importance of Nixon’s visit. Today Nixon’s dramatic entry on Air Force One is trivialised somewhat by the knowledge that for many years China and America had been trading table tennis players in an initiative now referred to as “ping-pong diplomacy.” I could certainly have exchanged Nixon and Mao’s duet about government bonds for an operatic game of table tennis. Baritone Bradley Daley expertly embodies the ailing Mao, though his villainous entry to thundering timpani necessarily had to contrast with the footage of Nixon and Mao’s actual meeting, where the Chairman laughs and chatters excitedly and the President smiles and fidgets nervously.
But the opera breaks down its own myths soon enough. The monumental first act, focusing on Nixon and Mao, is juxtaposed with an irreverent, “feminine” second act dealing with the wives of the protagonists, Mrs Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing. Here the true heroine of the opera, Mrs Nixon, presents the fundamental opposition of the opera, which is not Democracy and Communism, but a sort of bleeding-heart humanism and the political principle of equality, an opposition that sees no easy resolution. Mrs Nixon is initially sympathetic to the communist principle of equality, while also upholding man’s liberties. Touring a factory she “forsees a time when luxury dissolves into the air like a perfume” while people are free to speculate on the economy. The casting of Kissinger as the slave driver in Chiang Ch’ing’s revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women quickly puts an end to this dream. Mrs Nixon asks “doesn’t that look like you know who?” as Kissinger (Andrew Collis) rises from his seat and enters the ballet. This leaves an empty seat next to Chiang Ch’ing and the Nixons, a reminder that the roles of oppressed and oppressor are so many places within larger economic and political structures waiting to be filled. The humanist Mrs Nixon does not realise this when she mistakes the play for reality and runs over to the beaten peasant girl. The Nixons exit as the peasant girl is armed and takes aim at the tyrant.
This unresolvable middle ground is also represented by Chinese Premier and peace-broking middleman Zhou Enlai, the only character to escape ridicule. Mao is portrayed as a mildly-expressed lecher, patting his female aide on the knee and referring to Madame Mao as “that tasty little starlet.” Nixon passes Kissinger small change for playing with the “backroom boys.” Tiffany Speight as Pat Nixon and Eva Jinhee Kong as Chiang Ch’ing give such stunning performances that you almost forgive Goodman their shallow characterization as soft-hearted ditz and fanatical harpy.
Not only is the conflict between humanism and political principle a perennial issue, Nixon in China remains relevant because it witnesses the birth of the sort of mediatised politics smothering political debate in Australia today. As Nixon’s speech at the state dinner was transmitted via satellite around the world, so every movement of a leader today is scrutinised and blown out of proportion, leading to the exaggeration of the trivial and the banalisation of the grandiose. As one audience member remarked on leaving the theatre: “Can you imagine someone doing that with Gillard or Abbott?” Actually, after watching the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship, I think I can.