‘Nixon in China’: an opera with fresh relevance

Star soprano Renee Fleming said the opera highlights the fragility of world peace – Copyright POOL/AFP/File Chris Jackson


Opera rarely feels like a topical medium but modern classic “Nixon in China” is growing in popularity and offering a pointed reminder of how much geopolitics has shifted in the past 50 years.  

It recounts the historic moment in 1972 when US president Richard Nixon travelled to Beijing and established diplomatic ties with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. 

The irreverent opera received mixed reviews when first performed in 1987 but has since become a beloved part of the canon in the United States. 

It is increasingly a hit abroad, playing in at least five European opera houses this year. 

It carries a new poignancy at a time of growing East-West tensions. 

An illustrious Paris production opens on Saturday in the week that Chinese President Xi Jinping held a state visit to Moscow. 

“We take it seriously right now because China and the US are in the news every day, and in a way that kind of highlights the fragility of world peace,” said Renee Fleming, the superstar soprano who plays Nixon’s wife in the Paris production. 

She is disheartened by current affairs, having always been “tremendously welcomed” in China and Russia.

“This is a time where I’m thinking please hold it together. Let’s everybody calm down and resume the fantastic relationship — not without challenges… but it’s still worth keeping the peace,” she told AFP.

– No more ‘yellowface’ –

One big change these days — insisted upon by composer John Adams — is that companies use Asian singers for the Chinese roles. 

Scottish Opera was accused of “yellowface” in 2021 for staging the play with white actors, as was previously typical.

“It’s right that now, when things are so sensitive, we work hard to find Asian singers,” Adams, 76, told AFP. 

“But ultimately I want to believe that it doesn’t matter.”

The play was controversial for different reasons when it first opened. 

“Opera was always considered to be about Greek myths or Norse gods or melodrama like Puccini,” Adams recalled. 

“But I thought this subject matter was something that opera could treat very well, because… it’s about the collision of the two main philosophies of how life should be lived.”

The Paris production uses elaborate and symbolic staging, such as the choir split into opposing table tennis teams, referencing the “ping-pong diplomacy” that helped thaw relations at the time. 

It does not shy away from criticism of Mao’s regime, with an underground prison revealed beneath the library where the politicians are meeting and a mini-documentary, screened halfway through, about the horrific repression of Chinese musicians during the Cultural Revolution. 

But Xiaomeng Zhang, who plays the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, told AFP the opera was above all “a stark reminder… that making peace, not war, despite ideological and political differences, is not only a strategical choice but also a moral choice”.

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