When Scottish Opera‘s 2019/20 programme was announced one production jumped out as particularly exciting and new – John Adams’ Nixon in China, the first time Scottish Opera has staged this modern classic. It is inspired by US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, a meeting which set a template for similar summits, from Reagan and Gorbachev to Trump and Kim Jong-un. Adams used this meeting, and the ages-old clash of cultures when east meets west, to try and go beyond the stereotypes of the respective countries, and their leaders, and discover something more human and relatable.
Act I does much more than simply set the scene, it immediately throws the audience into the action as we see Air Force One make its way to China. Nixon’s arrival is played as much for a watching US TV audience as it is for their hosts. With flashes going off and a constant stream of images and information being projected on stage, to begin with there is almost too much going on to be able to take it all in. The set is also in constant flux, with sections moved around to create new rooms and settings, the centre stage revolving, and cast and characters continually coming and going. However you soon realise that you won’t miss a thing as all the relevant information is made clear, and you can begin to relax and enjoy this visual feast.
This is partly because the set quickly becomes a character in its own right, with props, costume, audio, and visuals, all working in harmony to help the story unfold. The footage of Nixon’s 1972 visit brings home that events on stage are based on reality, and this clash of cultures had real-world ramifications. The meeting between Mao and Nixon is a wonderful scene with a clearly ailing Mao backed by his own Greek chorus who help him make his points, while Nixon and Henry Kissinger raise their eyes at each other and try to make their own point of view clear.
The apparently opposing ideologies and philosophies of Mao’s communism and Nixon’s capitalism prove to be closer that you, and they, may initially think, leading to Nixon proclaiming, after a rather Bacchanalian official banquet, “I opposed China, I was wrong”, despite Kissinger’s attempts to quieten him, aware of how this will play at home.
The performances are strong across the board, but special mention must be made of Julia Sporsen’s Pat Nixon, who makes an immediate impact on stage in her red coat which stands out against the blacks and greys of the suits who surround her. The ‘lady in red’ motif is one often used in art and culture to depict a woman who stands apart for a number of reasons, from Gabriel Metsu’s 17th century painting ‘Portrait of a Lady in Red’, to examples in modern cinema such as The Matrix, The Mask, and, of course, The Woman In Red.
Pat Nixon is the only woman in Nixon’s party that we meet, and it is a reminder that the role of First Lady of the USA is one of influence and importance. From Eleanor Roosevelt, through Jackie K, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Babs Bush, Hillary Clinton, to more recently Michelle Obama, all named have been important campaigners on behalf of their husbands, and political figures in their own right. What unfolds for Pat is an emotional roller-coaster ride as she meets workers and schoolchildren, visits the Summer Palace, and attends the Peking Opera with the rest of the presidential party as guests of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing.
The incredible second act really belongs to the two wives, and what an act it is – one of the finest hours I have ever spent in a theatre. The performances, from singers and the dancers, are moving and powerful, and you find yourself, like Pat Nixon, caught up in what unfolds. Compare her compassion and concern to the brutality of Kissinger (undoubtedly the pantomime villain of the piece) and you see two extremes of human nature. In many ways Nixon in China is an opera where extremes meet.
The third act is more one of reflection and contemplation, with both Premiers and their wives remembering their younger days and the struggles they faced. They also ask the question if they have achieved anything at all, referring to the summit, but more generally as well, something which the audience must ponder for themselves.
Nixon In China may not be for all opera lovers, with its modern, often minimalist, music and comparatively contemporary setting, and if that’s you then have no fear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be along in March which should tick all your boxes. However, Nixon in China is the sort of production which should reach beyond an opera audience to appeal to lovers of theatre, musicals, film, and TV. It’s epic, cinematic, complex, moving, still relevant, and quite simply brilliant. If that sounds like the sort of thing you’re looking for then Nixon in China is waiting for you.
You can find all of The Scottish Opera Podcasts here, our series of interviews with individuals who work for the company in various key roles, the most recent a conversation with General Director Alex Reedijk.