Monday, August 25, 2014


You must be a fool to believe you are making history


Before discussing the characters and the music, it is important to ask the question of the direct representation of modern historical facts in operas. History is common in plays and Shakespeare and his histories are the very model we can think of. He covered practically all the important kings of England. Marlowe added Edward II who was not exactly a great king. It is true Richard III was not a great king either but he was the last of the Plantagenet kings and his short reign was crucial for the evolution of the English crown.

As for historical events we can think of “Egmont” by Goethe then brought to the operatic stage by Beethoven. It deals with the independence war of the Netherlands against the Spanish King and Germanic Emperor that was successful for the Netherlands and failed for Flanders. In the same line we can think of the Spanish Civil War depicted by Brecht in “Señora Carrar's Rifles.” We can also think of Jean Genet’s "Four Hours in Shatila" about the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

But it is quite common that operas may deal with wider social or political questions like the end of feudalism in France, before what was to happen some years later with the French revolution, in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

It is true it was and still is common in communist regimes like in the USSR or China to use historical events or ideological questions as central arguments in plays, operas, films. It is true the theatrical stage and the movies deal with historical situation a lot, and television with documentaries can deal with very recent political or historical situations. In the West we seem to think that opera is supposed to remain detached from direct political events. We can note it has become a fad in the West today to present all composition by Shostakovich, or other Russian composers, with a more or less long litany on Stalin’s dictatorship, which is frankly out of place because it has no value whatsoever on the quality of the music.

So you can imagine the reactions in the West when this opera came out and it could even have been considered as typically American with their exacerbated nationalism and patriotism. And yet, as we are going to see, this opera is a lot more complex and rich than just that praising the wisdom of American leaders in the present world. Some say it is a masterpiece of American music and opera. We might get to a more complex vision and assessment at the end of this review.


The music is first of all striking by what some call its minimalism. It is based on short sequences of notes that are repeated over and over again and are the very basis of the composition. The opera, for instance, starts with an eight beat tempo over seven notes and one silent beat and this musical phrase is just hammered into us hundreds of times, with variations up and down the scale and from one instrument to another. This is only one example. There are hundreds of such tempos in the opera and yet to reduce the music to that would be faulty because these rhythmic sequences of notes that vary from two or three up to seven or eight beats are used in two different ways.

First of all the opening eight beat seven note sequence little by little goes into the background of a more melodious music that develops in the foreground to the point, for this rhythmic sequence, of being merged into this melodious façade. The second treatment of such rhythmic repetitive phrases is that several different phrases can occur in the same scene and they overlap, superimpose themselves over one another, create some at times chaotic polyrhythmic construction that expresses or supports a chaotic political situation in the concerned scene. It is true though these very overpowering sequences are constantly present, in a way or another, and they have a mesmerizing effect that becomes subliminal after a while. We do not listen to them anymore but we hear them and our understanding of the plot is literally mastered – and formatted – by these sequences.


But I would like to insist on another aspect of this minimalist technique and music. It corresponds to an experience of modern life in modern society. We are constantly swallowed up by various rhythms in us and around us, in every single of our activities or actions, and these rhythms are multiple, constantly crisscrossing one another, totally overpowering and unconscious and yet formatting us entirely into what we are: polyrhythmic beings that could not survive one minute if these tempos and rhythmic patterns disappeared. The matrix of them have to do with our being Homo Sapiens, the bipedal fast running long distance species we are and that implies we have to constantly coordinate several physiological rhythms of ours: the heart, the breathing, the legs, the arms, and the whole body. It is when these different rhythms are brought together and coordinated that we experience the highest level of satisfaction, fulfillment and pleasure. The basic activity that is constructed around such a rare moment of absolute coordination is human sex, which by the way is basically animal in nature though human in mental power.

Minimalist music had antecedents in the first thirty years of the 20th century with Stravinsky, Prokofiev and many others, and not all Russian. It correspond to the emergence of industrial suburban life in big cities. Ballet dancing is in itself such an elaboration with dancers coordinating their own movements, each dancer their various limb movements for example, and the various dancers with pas-de-deux for one example. Ballet dancing could also work on the opposition of such rhythmic construction and the lack of coordination between two or more dancers could become significant and signifying. And that comes from very far in human history since dancing is a very old human activity, even if it mostly worked on coordination (like in the old minuet) but did not ban confrontation.


We know this aspect of our modern life was marvelously depicted by Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” showing how industrial gestures and rhythms could become obsessive compulsive and thus overpowering, though yet and always significant and signifying in any situation, including the sexual innuendo of the scene when Charlie Chaplin performs his screwing gesture with a woman in the street. 

Just as this rhythmic opportunistic and circumstantial composition is constantly present in our daily life, including with music nowadays and the constant sonorous presence of musical rhythms and compositions in our environment, both personal and social, it is also mesmerizing, hypnotic, unconscious and subliminal. We all know we have some musical rhythms and phrases that come back in our consciousness without knowing where they come from. This type of subliminal formatting is constantly used by advertising, both on the radio and on television. This opera is absolutely typical of our age and the rhythmic minimalism is fundamental, but we do not capture it after a while, though our unconscious mind captures without counting the binary, ternary, quaternary and so on patterns. The traditional symbolism of these rhythmic patterns is lost in our modern world though in the Christian tradition every single one had a meaning and our Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals or churches were built on such numerical symbolism.

We are thus manipulated in real life by such rhythmic patterns that have some deep unconscious meaning that we do not control any more, if ever. In this opera we let ourselves be transported by this subliminal rhythmic background but it informs our understanding of the opera itself.


That’s where the language can be brought in because the use of the language in this opera is often going that rhythmic way and creates patterns that are no longer symbolic but that have a deep resonance in us: these patterns reverberates in us without us knowing it. Let’s take some examples. In Act I Scene three Chou sings:

“From vision to inheritance
From vision to inheritance
From vision
From vision
From vision to inheritance”

We can see the patterns that can be rendered with “from vision” = A and “to inheritance”= B as being AB – AB – A – A – AB. It is essential because Chou speaks of the vision of the past revolution and then the present inheritance that kills the revolution. In his vision there is little future except the managing and processing of this inheritance. That’s a particularly pessimistic vision emphasized by the singing pattern.

Nixon actually answers Chou with another pattern:

“We must seize the hour
We must seize the hour
We must seize the hour
We must seize the hour
            And seize the day”

In the same way we have a pattern that can be rendered if “we must” = A, “seize” = B, “the hour” = C and “the day” = D as follows: ABC – ABC – ABC – and BD. The value is purely opportunistic and circumstantial on Nixon’s side. No vision, no inheritance, just an opportunity that must not be missed because it “makes history” as he says. He has some sense of the future but without any vision at all, without any project, just the future for the future’s sake.

This use of language is extremely present in the whole opera.


We could take another example which is a lot vaster since it concerns the whole Scene two of Act II, the “Red Detachment of Women” ballet which is provided with a text to be sung on an original music by John Adams, not the original Chinese music of the ballet by Huang Zhun. The text is mostly long sequences of iambic dimeters with variationS on the iambic pattern that turns trochaic here and there, at times slightly more complex. The singing and the music emphasize this linguistic pattern, or linguistic patterns. Let’s give one example: the first Chorus:

“How thin you are!
If every scar
On this poor back
Could only speak
These walls would crack
This thick-walled heart
Cast in the dirt
Would raise the cry
Hate tyranny!”

We can note how the opening trochee of the seventh line emphasizes the meaning: the downtrodden Ching-hua. In the same way the final line with the unorthodox rhythm of two stressed syllables and two unstressed syllables stands out as a slogan, a motto, like in a demonstration.

Those are only examples of how the language is formerly made significant beyond the words themselves.

We can now turn to the characters and the “political” meaning of the opera.


The first act starts with the chorus singing some simple mottos taken directly from the Little Red Book of the Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (today’s Mao Zedong) you can check it at Nixon on arrival sounds confused in his political vision when he says: “We live in an unsettled time. Who are our enemies?” and then he turns paranoid when he adds: “The rats begin to chew the sheets. . . Nobody is a friend of ours.” Then he meets Mao. Mao then stands as a philosopher when he says: “My business is philosophy” and when he greets Kissinger as “the philosopher.” But at the same time he says “I back the man who’s on the right” meaning on the right and not in the right as Kissinger suggests. And he clearly explains: “The line we take now is a paradox. Among the followers of Marx the extreme left, the doctrinaire, tend to be fascist.” This sounds more like John Adams’ opinion, but it is amplified by a heavily repeated sentence that expresses Mao’s total disillusionment at the end of his life, placid and (maybe) cynical contemplation of events: “Founders come first, then profiteers.” We are just after the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, present later on is over-powerful if not all-powerful.

This Chiang Ch’ing (today’s Jiang Qing) is called “that tasty little starlet” my Mao. She came in 1938 in his life and survived him. She was sentenced to death, a sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment in 1983 and she committed suicide in 1991. She was Mao’s fourth wife and a typical manipulator till the end. The opera more or less presents her as an orthodox sectarian fundamentalist of Mao’s thinking with her presentation herself at the end of Act II as follows:

“I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung
Who raised the weak above the strong
When I appear the people hang
Upon my words, and for his sake
Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck
I speak according to the book”

John Adams includes his own meaning here with the line cut after “hang” and the double meaning it has then which is emphasized by the “wreaths” three lines later. The last line is repeated ad nauseam. The whole set of six lines is repeated a few lines later and the Chorus will close the act with a final repetition of this last sentence. The “book” is the Little Red Book of course and at the same time you can hear all fundamentalists in any religion or philosophy in this stance, the book being either the Bible, or the Quran, or the Book of Mormon, or Das Kapital, or Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought. And she will go even further in the present when in the last scene she repeats “The revolution must not end.”

Mao is just the puppet at the end of the strings of this woman. In Act III he explains his recollection  of the revolution under the influence, if not the guidance, of his wife when he says twice “Revolution is a boys’ game.” Is it really? Or is it child’s play?


Chou (today’s Zhou Enlai) is the realist in the situation: he knows Mao’s wife’s adventures (the Cultural Revolution for example) leads to a lot of victims and let us know about it when he says:

“We saw our parents’ nakedness;
Rivers of blood will be required
To cover them. Rivers of blood.”

And near the end he summarizes his own life as follows:

“I have no offspring. In my dreams
The peasants with their hundred names,
Unnamed children and nameless wives
Deaden my footsteps like dead leaves.”

He appears as a complete ghost in this situation, a ghost that more or less represents the peasants who have so many names that they have none, their children who have received no names and their wives who have no names. Note the progression from too many names to no received names and to no names at all. And this Danse Macabre of ghosts brings death in the picture with the pair “deaden. . . dead. . .“ And Chou will close the opera with the following question and his answer:

“How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond
Our remedy. Come heal this wound.”

You cannot have a more pessimistic balance sheet from someone who led, in second position for sure, the Chinese revolution from the beginning till his own death in 1976. And yet the opera closes with a phenomenal contradictory and frightening poetical metaphor that contains all the hope we can grasp in our everyday experience:

“Just before dawn the birds begin,
The warblers who prefer the dark,
The cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
Lies heavy on the morning grass.”

We can see the alliance of the free birds who sing in the night and the caged birds, the slaves who answer the free ones. Metaphor of the revolutionary underground forces who call the slaves and advise them to rebel, to stand up and break the cage. You can feel and sense the “chill of grace,” that chilling tragic moment when history changes, moves forward, transforms itself in the most graceful event that requires “rivers of blood” to be fulfilled.


Then in front of these three characters whi are the three American representatives. Kissinger is also playing the landlord’s factotum in the ballet, Lao Szu. He is just a cynical diplomat who tries to get his will through by all means. In the ballet he is the one who will give the order: “Whip her to death!” He is the one who is negotiating the end of the Vietnam War in Paris, as he is reminded of by Mao, while the war itself is becoming more or more brutal in its last years (three more years to go).

Pat Nixon appears as the total fool who only sees the surface of things. Practically inexistent in Act I, she is central in Act II since she occupies the first half with her three “cultural” visits. She only sees details like a glass elephant that she likes. And she has a long soliloquy which is inconsistent.

“This is prophetic! I foresee
A time will come when luxury
Dissolves into the atmosphere
Like a perfume. . .
. . . Why regret
Life which is so much like a dream,
Let the eternal plan resume. . .”

And seventeen more “let” will follow and all the humdrum clichés of the American society seen as a naturally growing organism with references to “bedroom communities,” “the band,” “the stand-up comedian,” “Gipsy Rose,” “businessmen,” “routine,” “days,” “the sun,” “lovely drivers,” “the farmer,” “passersby,” “them,” “the Statue of Liberty,” “her,” “the Unknown Soldier,” “him,” “The Prodigal,” “the eagle,” “bride and groom,” and the concluding line “let it remain inviolate.” In other words LET IT this perfect American cliché or accumulation of clichés be eternal, never change. Who is she to give that instruction? Of course, no one. She is simply asking some kind of anonymous god to do it. Note the “perfume” that has to be an allusion to the “beauty parlor” she was supposed to visit quite often and where she revealed the secret of the Oval Office she had gathered on the pillow from her husband, the President.

In the ballet she is such a fool that she believes the actress who is “whipped to death” is really “whipped to death” and she drags her husband onto the stage to come to the rescue of the actress. She is like a child who wants to grasp the character or the candy he/she sees on the TV screen.

She is thus a believer who works by the book, the book of the American Dream, of what Chou alluded to in his toast in Act I:

“The virtuous American
And the Chinese make manifest
Their destinies in time. We toast
That endless province whose frontier
We occupy from hour to hour,
Holding in perpetuity
The ground our people won today
From vision to inheritance.
All patriots were brothers once. . . “


The frontier of the Far West, and China is that Far West beyond the sea. The manifest destiny of Monroe’s doctrine. The American Dream of a world dominated by the USA. And Chou is trying to share it with Nixon who does not pick the metaphor and answers with another dream:

Telecommunication has
Broadcast your message into space.
Yet soon our words won’t be recalled
While what we do can change the world. . .
But let us, in these next five days
Start a long march on new highways,
In different lanes, but parallel
And heading for a single goal.
. . . We
Must seize the hour and seize the day.”

Apart from an allusion if Mao’s Long March, the metaphor is that of the Information Highway that drowns the allusion to Mao’s Long March in some opportunistic stance in front of a media-oriented circumstantial challenge, which has little to do with Saul Bellow’s fourth novel published in 1956. But the original meaning in Horace (Odes 1:11) has to be kept in mind: “While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled: seize the day, put very little trust in the future.” That belittles Nixon’s opportunistic Carpe Diem reference.

So, in the last act and in the last scene of this last act we are not surprised that Pat leads Nixon into speaking of WW2 and his involvement in the Pacific campaign. But it is all reduced to nothing at all, no fighting, no real danger, just let them live and enjoy the adventure. In the very closing scene Nixon and Pat reminisce how Nixon had organized some typical American food stand in the war. While Chiang Ch’ing is repeating “the revolution must not end” and before Chou’s pessimistic and realistic conclusion on the impotence of human beings in front of history, Nixon is serving “a free burger and a beer” to his military mates? Between the two “the revolution must not end” we have this profound remark from Nixon:

“They called it “Nick’s Snack Shack.” I found
The smell of burgers on the grill
Made strong men cry.”

I thought that real men did not cry, but I must have been mistaken, though to cry for the smell of a hamburger is as trite as trite can be. And his last words will come just before Chou’s pessimistic and realistic conclusion on the impotence of human beings in front of history. Nixon concludes this historical event with:

“Done to a turn;
Rare, medium, well-done, anything
You say. The Customer is King.
Sorry, we’re low on relish. Drinks?
This is my way of saying thanks.”

Welcome consumer’s society! Then what can we conclude?


A historical event indeed but history is not in the hands of the men who took part in this event. History has its own logic. Mao is a dreamer manipulated by a fundamentalist wife who speaks by the book, acts by the book, and will end very badly after having caused rivers of blood to be shed while Chou is mopping around this blood to keep it within the river beds. On the other side Kissinger is a cynical diplomatic tyrant while Pat Nixon is a fool attached to superficial illusions and Richard Nixon is an opportunistic self-centered paranoid person reminiscing the past with or for pleasure and “seizing the day” without even knowing what it will bring, manipulated as he is by a modernistic metaphor of the media information highway.

All that developed on this mesmerizing hypnotic minimal rhythmic music engulfing and supporting all melodious moments and linguistic meaning. We are subluminally intimated the overwhelming signification that life is life, time is time, history is history, but we are nothing in that stream of historical unconsciousness. Luckily biologists and physiologists start telling us the human species has reached its maximum natural life span. We just have to become mechanized robots to finally go beyond history in the metal scrap yard of tomorrow’s singularity.


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