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96. Nixon in China January 31, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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It was in February in 1972 when Nixon went to China. I was a university student then, with not much use for Nixon, but with a naive interest in China. In high school I had checked out a translation of Mao’s “little red book” from the library, and read it cover to cover in the course of three weeks or so. I thought I needed some balance to the information I was getting filtered through my mother’s ultra-conservative journals and the television news. I deliberately did much of my reading in public places, believing that just reading Mao would make me seem rebellious.

I remember almost nothing of what I read, but seeing the last dress rehearsal today of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China, I remember how it felt to read that book. Being quite young, I felt certain that I was living on the cusp of great changes. And no doubt I was. Nixon in China reminded me how much my life has been shaped not just by the one week the Nixons spent in China, but by the culture of 1972 and the years on either side of it.

An iconic song written just seven years earlier simply took the fear of China for granted as something to compare to our own social ills in the USA.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
You may leave here for 4 days in space
But when you return, it’s the same old place
The poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace
And… tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend
You don’t believe
We’re on the eve
Of destruction

This is the context that I bring with me to the opera; the intensity of my own youth and a particular worldview of that time from the center of the United States. I don’t have a decent feel even now for the Chinese context for this meeting. All of my news — such as it was — came from US sources. While I recognized the references to the Long March and the Cultural Revolution, I don’t know enough about the Chinese view of the Nixon visit. I did not watch any of it on television in spite of its broadcast on “the three networks” the Nixon character mentions in the opera. I didn’t have a television in my dorm room and I was too wrapped up in my studies and in my social life to think about watching this news.

Since this performance was a dress rehearsal, the concert hall was filled with school groups. I wonder what context these students are bringing with them. Have they been told some of the background by their teachers or parents or, especially for the youngest there, their grandparents? History classes have seldom been able to provide me the rich awareness of a prevailing social reality that I brought to this opera, so I expect they bring their own more modern contexts. Perhaps the opera rests on the emotions and thoughts expressed in the lyrics and music sung by the characters, both American and Chinese. In spite of extensive research, much of this still stems from the imagination of the opera’s creative team, especially the lyricist, Alice Goodman who brings a touching and odd poetry to the conversations and inner thoughts of this cast of characters. I was left wondering about the emotional life of human beings in positions of power: what it means for them, how they see themselves, and what they worry about.

*  *  *

As I read the news today across another ocean, Egypt faces a massive protest movement that seems poised to change the shape of that country dramatically, though perhaps not entirely in the way the young protesters may hope. I can’t help but find myself pulled to read the news stories and even the tweets that provide too little and too often. If not an opera, then certainly there is epic poetry waiting to be written.

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