Friday, August 29, 2014


It's a shame Mao is depicted as an invalid sex obsessed old ranter and raver


I will not re-analyze the opera in its formal content. I have already done that five days ago for the following recording: JOHN ADAMS – ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE – DENVER, COLORADO – MARIN ALSOP – COLORADO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA – COLORADO OPERA CHORUS – 2008 – NIXON IN CHINA – 1987. The review is available on Amazon but also on my blog dated Monday, August 25, 2014, at, under the title: “You must be a fool to believe you are making history.” I will only concentrate on this particular production and what it modifies or adds.

The first element is that we have here the live capture of the opera on one particular performance, February 12, 2011, as produced by one particular team. The intermissions are used for various interviews and supplementary resources. I must say these short interview of the singers impersonating Richard Nixon, Patricia Nixon, Chou En Lai and Henry Kissinger are not that interesting. Too short and too personal within the performance, so too deeply involved at the time. The singer impersonating Richard Nixon is the one who actually created the role in the very first production of this opera. And he apparently has held this part over and over again.

The short interview of Peter Sellars and John Adams are absolutely useless and do not bring much. The interview of the ex-US-Ambassador to Beijing at the time of Nixon’s visit only tells us this particular production has been enriched with the notes he took at the time and so we learn that some official toasts and conversations are nearly verbatim. The interview of the set-designer Adrianne Lobel pushes aside the idea that the setting was inspired by real pictures of the real event. She does say she remained at a certain distance of these resources.

The very repetitive music of the overture, seven notes and eight beats, turns the first part of the opening chorus into a prayer mill reciting some mottoes from Mao’s Little Red Book up to the sentence “The people are the heroes now. Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.” At this moment the music changes, becomes more melodious and this sentences is repeated over and over again. It is a mantra in a way but not implied by the music this time but by the very repetition of the two sentences.

Richard Nixon is not particularly flattered by this production; When he disembarks from the plane he starts stuttering, stammering and repeating in the most ungraceful and displaced way, words and sentences as if he were a debutante in the political game, as if he were overwhelmed with the situation. This image of a man who is not really in touch with reality is going to be kept all along. When he meets Mao he tries to say a few things to a man who is far beyond any possible contact. Nixon then sounds like improvising some remarks that fall flat on their own faces most of the time, except once when Mao picks Nixon’s expression, “History is our mother,” and distorts it with his retort into “History is a dirty sow.” Later on in the ballet Nixon is dragged into the action by his wife but even so he remains on the side of what his wife is doing, which is by the way integrated into the ballet by the stage director and ballet master. His last scene in the third act, and his various interventions then are reminiscences from World War II in the Pacific and they are also very pathetic: he is on the verge of crying, he is mollified by the recollections and the story itself is miserable: he transformed a war station into a hamburger joint. At this moment he looks completely corrugated (like the roof of the shanty where he is stationed), inundated with the storm of the rain outside then and of his own memory.

Pat Nixon is just what she is. An innocuous person who has no personal project, who is entirely representative of the standard little middle class American housewife who finds herself in the position of First Lady and does not seem to be able to cope in any creative and committed way. She makes most of the time off the point remarks like about the glass elephant, which is green ceramic or china actually, that she sees as the symbol of the Republican Party, which is sort of off the point in China and for the Chinese. She imagines it is a unique piece and when she is given the lie about it by the workers who presented the elephant she does not even know what to say. The second mention of the elephant later on when a “real” one, at least by its size, is presented to her is a typical Walt Disney reference to Jumbo, which is an echo of the cartoon character Dumbo. We know what Jumbo was going to become when he got into the jet generation. The worst part for her is when she intervenes in the ballet believing the dancer is really dead. Apparently the stage director was nice and saved her dumbness by integrating her to the ballet and making her the one who presents the glass of some fictional red beverage to the “dead girl” for her to be resuscitated. Her part in the third act is meaningless since she is here only to repeat many times to her husband that he has already told her the story. She is a typical Republican First Lady who has no project of her own and is only the president’s companion trotting behind him. Only Democrat First Ladies actually had something to say and do, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Chou en Lai is shown without any real change in his allure and style. He is the realist pragmatist in the “revolutionary” team, the one who comes behind and mops the rivers of blood. At the end of the second act, after Mrs. Mao has created havoc on the stage by transforming the ballet into a real revolutionary act, he is standing tall in front and over Mrs. Mao, unmoved by her violence, or shouldn’t I say viral virulence, she, holding up in the air the Little Red Book, and he, looking down upon her sternly. He is the dam that managed to keep China together, and most Chinese alive. But in the last act Chou En Lai is really changed. He is shown from the start suffering from his pancreatic cancer and, since the stage is only furnished with six beds for Nixon, Pat, Chou, Kissinger (who will excuse himself to the toilet for nearly the whole act), Mao and Mrs. Mao, the six main characters (in this order from left to right), he is shown dying on the bed with a whole set of white lilies being brought and deposited around the foot of his bed, and him lying down, dead, covered up with a red Chinese flag till the last concluding solo when he will come back to life. This death is artificial, is a metaphor, and at the same time is dictated by the future of the event described here. In 1972 he was not yet dead, and this does not add anything to the opera since at this moment, if he dies (and Mao is also put to death in the same way) then Mrs. Mao is the only one who survives and there we are creating a tremendous hiatus with history. Does the artistic team want to tell us a story about what happened several years later? Why then is Nixon not shown out of the way too and the Vietnam war concluded with a full defeat? At this moment a strange ideological discourse prevails and seems to show that modern China has fallen in the hands of Mrs. Mao and her supporters. In other words it completely distorts history since Mrs. Mao will commit suicide after many years in prison due to her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, since the Maoists will be nicely pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping, and China will start growing at a record speed. This production has not yet digested that Nixon opened up the door, the gate actually, that was going to lead China to what it is today, the second economic power in the world and the leading force of the BRICS and the alliance around the BRICS, the first economic power in the world.

Mao is by far over-presented as a senile quasi-impotent-cum-invalid old man who is ranting and raving, repeating ad nauseam some old mottoes of his transformed into mantras, like “Founders come first, then profiteers,” “Revolution is a boys’ game,” “The revolution must go on,” and a few others. He is even presented as an old dirty sex obsessed lubricious freak who uses his secretaries (three mind you) as sex toys for his own masturbation. His recollection of Mrs. Mao when she was a young actress who got into his life in 1938 leads to a sex scene on the beds in the third act. Does this add anything to the character? It sure makes him look like a dirty boar echoing the dirty sow that history is according to one of his mantras. But is this sexual innuendo and real reference a motivation for Mao in this historical period and event? It only more or less blurs the real motivations and the fact that history is not made by human beings. This production loses this meaning: only fools can believe they are making history. The over-emphasis of the sexual obsession of Mao in the third act makes us lose the philosophical under-meaning or at times front meaning of what Mao may say. The end of the opera then becomes absolutely messy and meaningless, in spite of the last intervention of Chou En Lai who concludes the opera on a both poetical and realist note. In fact this last soliloquy by Chou is the real meaning of the opera: it is the alliance of the free birds who sing at dawn, still in the dark, underground, and the caged birds, the prisoners, the slaves that will bring the future, maybe. And yet this metaphor of the future brings up a “chill of grace.” Grace comes from the fact that human beings are part of the history they do not control but that carries them through time or rather duration. The chill comes from the fact that realistically Chou knows history will be able to come only if many rivers of blood are abundantly provided to wash away the horror and the suffering of the victims of exploitation and liberation. The sexual meaning added to Mao’s presence in this third act is wiping away the meaning that a good revolutionary leader needs to lean on some volunteers who have no pangs of no conscience and on some realists who will try to keep these volunteers within some acceptable limits, though it will not mean no blood shed along the way.

Mrs. Mao is a vain, superficial fundamentalist that sees revolution and change as havoc, necessarily and compulsorily. It is not change if it is not havoc and what’s more a good old bloody havoc at that. There the opera is more than clear, and this production pushes that havoc at the end of the second act, after the ballet, at the end of the ballet, to some extreme form more or less justified at this moment. Unluckily the third act goes on with this vision by introducing the dancing couple of the male soldier and the resuscitated female victim, dressed in red mind you, behind the six beds at first and then in front. This is a link with the second act and Mrs. Mao is thus bringing sexual havoc in Mao himself by literally encouraging him to get one of his secretary to sexually satisfy him, in front of her, Mrs. Mao, and then by entering the same sexual game with him directly. This is not a case of literary creative freedom as some insisted in the interviews, but it is a case of diluting the deeper meaning into a superficial meaning that cuts off all depth in Chou En Lai’s concluding soliloquy. In front of such havoc caused by the anarchistic fundamentalists with no possible restrain, there is only one possible vision: history itself and the cosmos with it are out of joint. It is not something rotten in the kingdom of Denmark but it is something rotten in the cosmic order that controls us entirely.

It is true that Nixon then in his final hamburger enterprise in the US armed forces in WWII appears like and as a victory. The Customer is really the king of the show, capitalism is really the victor of the comedy, ego-centered selfishness is really the master of our human tragedy that is thus turned into a melodramatic weeping and crying dereliction.

A great production but slightly – only slightly, you say? – warped out of shape. The hope that event brought to us in 1972 and the new energy it provided us with to force the defeat in Vietnam and to support Angela Davis in her trial and the Black Panthers in general is wiped out with a rag engorged with blood and sperm. I regret that lack of historical seriousness, if not depth. Is modern Homo Sapiens regressing to the state of not-yet-development of Neanderthals? I am afraid so. The customer of the opera in the west is the king of the performance: the creator does not create but satisfies the needs and desires of the critics and the audience (not the people since only a very narrow minority of the people go to the opera, even within the DVD revolution that widens the audience but does not make it a majority of the people).


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