Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nixon Visits China and Shocks the World

NixonChinaRichard Nixon’s legacy will be inextricably bound with Watergate and his resignation from the presidency.  While not surprising, it does obscure some achievements, most notably his visit to the People’s Republic of China and the initial thawing of relations with the world’s most populous country.

The overture to China was breathtaking on a national and personal scale.  The United States backed the corrupt Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek before, during and after World War II.  Mao Tse-tung, the leader of the communists, eventually seized control and, in 1949, “Red China” was born.

Relations with China were chilly, not only because of ideological differences—which were high profile in the 1950s—but also due to Chinese involvement in the Korean War.  There were few more vocal anti-communist politicians in the 1940s and 1950s than Nixon, who rose through the ranks partly as a result of his cold warrior credentials.

But by the time Nixon became president in 1969, his views were evolving.  Among the reasons he began to look at China in slightly different terms were the Vietnam War and tension with the Soviet Union. 

In addition, Nixon was an astute observer of the international world order.  Personally absorbed by foreign policy, including the “big picture,” he saw the value of seeking some modus vivendi with China.  This perspective was nourished and advanced by his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.

After secret overtures and visits to China, the administration was able to take the gamble of  Nixon becoming the first American president to visit China in February 1972—and, by the way, at the beginning of a presidential election year.

This month the Metropolitan Opera presents the return of a 1987 American opera, Nixon in China, which portrays some of the drama of the visit in music and ballet.  Amid a six-performance schedule, the Met yesterday simulcast a matinee in movie theaters worldwide.  The performance was magnificent. 

Nixon in China, produced by Peter Sellars and conducted by John Adams, includes an impressive cast anchored by baritone James Maddalena, who has been playing this Nixon role for more than two decades.

The opera is presented in three acts.  The first is the most impressive.  It includes Nixon’s landing in Beijing (then Peking); a huge prop of Air Force One is used as the President descends the stairs to be greeted by Chinese Premier Chou En-lai.  Also present is a fanciful contingent of drab party officials who sing a haunting refrain:  “The people are the heroes now; Behemoth pulls the peasant plow.”

Among other highlights is Nixon’s meeting Mao in his study, as the President tries to discuss policies and the Chairman waxes philosophical.  In the second act, Mrs. Nixon visits some Potemkin-style sites, and then the cast sees The Red Detachment of Women, which Nixon did see in Beijing. 

Other themes include the eccentricities of Mao; the ruthlessness of Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s wife; the growing terminal illness of Chou En-lai; and the role of Kissinger.  The opera ends with a third act that has the key figures undertake some psychological self-examination.

Nixon in China is a superb performance and underscores many of the key issues of that fateful week 39 years ago.  Some of the opera, of course, is improvisational, but overall it provides an impressive interpretation to an event that had a profound impact on both countries.


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