Nixon’s 1972 visit to China might seem a long time ago, but Scottish Opera’s restaging of John Adams’ masterpiece brings history back to life with depth and panache.
On 21 February 1972, then-US president Richard Nixon met with the chairman of the Communist People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. The meeting was of historic significance, and symbolically amounted to the collision of the capitalist west, with the communist east.
John Adams’ opera was first shown in 1987, when the interwoven historical and cultural references that intersperse the opera would still have been common knowledge. Despite the passage of time, his opera remains just as relevant today as it would doubtless have been back then. The references do nothing to obscure meaning for the onlooker, but rather contribute to the well-wrought chaos of the representation and participate in drawing attention to the criticism of the media’s role in framing history. Indeed, the media are shown to be a pithy conveyor of information, focusing only on catch phrases and ready-made expressions. The point is hammered home through the use of constant repetition, which simultaneously gives depth to insignificant moments and empties out the meaning of landmark events. This socio-political commentary is aided and abetted by the use of material props (the cunning use of boxes and a projector) and meta-moments, when it seems the director attempts to break the fourth wall. Generally, this makes the representation evidently self-reflexive, as it seeks to address the lack of meaning at the centre of its attack on institutional media with phrases such as “words decompose”. The tension between two competing ideologies further highlights the post-modern grappling for and with meaning that the Opera foregrounds. Proverbial Chinese wisdom is bandied about against an increasingly hollow capitalist narrative, culminating in Nixon’s wife staring and pointing at the audience as a large part of the cast chants “Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig!”
Throughout the representation of this centre-stage history, the back-stage staff and personnel of political institutions, as well as the domestic dimension of leadership, vie for attention. This participates in creating a tense atmosphere, in which narrative becomes secondary and vague impressions take precedence. Strategically placed rhymes make the political elite appear to be dancing puppets for a ruthless electorate. The figure of Henry Kissinger provides much needed, albeit misogynistic, comic-relief and adds a gendered layer of meaning to the close-inspection of the institution of diplomacy. The appearance of a deliveroo employee on stage tells the audience that the political commentary obvious in the representation is still relevant nowadays. The elegant, and sometimes martial choreographies of revolutionary China are backed by a stellar orchestra and conductor. Combined with eerie phrases and repetition, the opera can best be described as a hallucinatory fever dream. One caveat would be that, for an opera concerned with cultural issues, the casting choices seem inconsistent and do not portend a clear rationale.