An Analysis of Nixon in China

I’m about to own up to the ridiculous John Adams (the composer) obsession I have. I want to analyze his opera Nixon in China (premiered in 1987) in such a way as to hit a few themes we developed in class—namely myths, genre, and speech.

For those of you who haven’t witnessed the awesomeness that is Nixon in China, it can be summarized very quickly: Richard Nixon goes to China. The opera has no “plot”, per say; we do see a progression of events, but they are not centered around an easily identified conflict. Act I shows the arrival of the Nixons which is covered heavily by the media; Act II shows the visit from the perspectives of the wives (covered lightly by the media); Act III shows the husbands and wives discussing the meetings together at their bedsides (no media). The story never concludes as a traditional story would by saying “this meeting was good” or “this meeting was bad”. Instead, we are left as undecided as we began, but with a lot of strong imagery and emotions.

It is evident from the beginning of Nixon that the version of the story we are witnessing is an American myth of which Nixon is the “hero”. The audience unwittingly confirms this at the beginning of every performance, seen below: Richard and Pat Nixon emerge from a full-sized model of the Spirit of ’76 and wave at the audience, who, upon seeing their cue, applaud the Nixons’ arrival.  The arias, no matter if they are sung by American or Chinese characters, are always “American” in style.

Adams has stated that his interest in writing operas is to explore the creation of contemporary myths, rather than reviving old myths. In Nixon, he cites the myth of the office of presidency and the myths of capitalism and communism. As for the depiction of the myths, I think they are a bit Honigian (I’m not sure I would say they are fully Honigian). First of all, if we consider the meeting of Nixon and Mao to be a symbolic meeting of capitalism and communism, the opera’s depiction of the meeting is quite unromantic; Mao is depicted as having become slightly senile with age, and Nixon as a symbol comes preloaded with images of corruption. But Nixon is not a gothic romance, either. There’s actually nothing romantic about it. In the minimalist style, it avoids the necessary story development to be considered any kind of romance; no conflicts are resolved because no conflicts were introduced in the first place. One could argue that the romantic aspects of the story—having to the make the decision to extend diplomatic relations to China—happened before the opera begins. Nixon shifts the interest of the story from being the mechanics of what exactly happened and how to the effects of what happened.

Nixon can, in the context given above, be viewed as a founding story that begins at the end. The decision to have relations with China created a new us, and Nixon seeks to explore a bit what that new us is. Speech recognition is an important theme in this exploration. Act I shows a tediously long conversation between Nixon and Mao, and while the effort to be diplomatic is present, the two seem to be talking past one another; Mao is more interested in discussing philosophy than relations, and his speech seems to go over Nixon’s head a bit. This is not necessarily because Nixon does not understand Mao’s dogmas, but because the two seem to disagree on the topic. Mao’s senility at the time is also apparent.

Below is an excerpt of their conversation. It takes place in Mao’s study, where he and Nixon are accompanied by Cho En-Lai, Henry Kissinger, and three interpreters. (Beware, this scene is kind of weird.)

The last scene I wanted to look at depicts a symbolic “disagreement” between Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao). Act II shows the Nixons attending the political ballet-opera “The Red Detachment of Women” which depicts the rise of a young female peasant who gains power against her oppressors the Communist party.  (The scene is meant to be symbolic rather than a depiction of factual events.) Chiang Ch’ing sits in the audience, very pleased message of the ballet, while Pat Nixon, apparently not agreeing with the former’s interpretation, becomes very offended and interrupts the ballet. Offended by the interruption, Madame Mao tries to have her power recognized:

We don’t really “hear” Madame Mao. She shrieks her identity across incredible intervals, but all we hear is “I am my husband’s wife”—never her own name. It could be said that this is just our perception of her—the music, is, after all, quite “American”—and that would be exactly my point. Pat, in her brightly colored, effeminate outfit, unwittingly denies Madame Mao power by not understanding it.

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