The Opera Brings Back Richard Nixon

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Nixon in China
Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Center
New York, N.Y.

There he was at the door of Air Force One, smiling and waving to history with that signature choppy shoulder salute of his, happy wife Pat at his side, rumpled Henry Kissinger behind him. It was Richard Nixon, back after all these years in the opera Nixon in China, debuting at the Metropolitan Opera after traveling around the country for twenty-four seasons.

Nixon in China, by composer John Adams and directed by Peter Sellars, is the story of President Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1972, his talks with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and a trip to the Forbidden City.  It was a diplomatic coup at the time, the opening of the door to the world’s largest, and very foreboding, country.  At the Met, with Adams’s lush and stirring music and Alice Goodman’s sturdy libretto, the seven days of history are told well, with large, colorful, striking sets, a huge cast and dazzling choreography.

In Act I, the Nixons arrive and the president meets with an ailing but forceful Chairman Mao.  The Nixons then attend a mammoth dinner at the Great Hall of the People.  In Act II, Mrs. Nixon is given a tour of China and the Nixons attend a performance of the fabled Peking Opera.  Nixon and Mao reflect on the trip in Act III.

The story itself, drawn out with lengthy singing, is pretty staid and not as engaging as it should be.  Nixon sings to Mao that he wants everyone to “join hands” and end the enmity between the two nations.  Mao agrees and sends the Nixons off on a vacationers’ dream trip through China.  The best part is Pat Nixon’s standard first lady visit to schools, playgrounds and hospitals.  It shows her best side.  That night, Madame Mao extols her husband and communism in a stellar performance at the opera and the Nixons, made to look like buffoons, try to save a girl from a beating that is actually part of the opera performance.

Adams, Goodman and Sellars push hard at the idea that the Chinese were just as eager for friendship as the Americans, symbolized by the fawning of Chou En-lai over the Nixons and the singing by the large ensemble of Chinese performers.  The trip was a success on stage, as it was in history, even though, for no good reason, Henry Kissinger is portrayed as a bumbling fool.

The actors are good.  James Maddalena, who has sung Nixon many times, is quite talented and looks a lot like him.  Other fine performances are by Russell Braun (Chou En-lai), Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon), Richard Paul Fink (Kissinger), Robert Brubaker (Mao) and Kathleen Kim (Madame Mao).  Sellars’s direction is sharp.  He uses the overwhelming sets to frame the story well, mixes drama and dance and drives home the historic meeting of the two worlds.  Adams’s music is at times stirring and at times reflective.

Richard Nixon has been pounded in the media and in entertainment over the years, but he did do some positive things.  It is good to see an opera that covers perhaps his greatest achievement.

Nixon in China has had a checkered history.  It was staged by the Houston Opera in 1987, but not the Met.  It earned both very positive and very negative reviews when it opened.  It has been staged nearly one hundred times since then, but not nearly as many times as its creative team had hoped.  It has been the victim of world politics.  Two years after its debut, the Chinese government clamped down on dissidents in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, a move that earned worldwide condemnation.  That cooled U.S. opera companies’ interest in the Nixon opera.  Throughout the 1990s, Sino-American relations remained tentative, but the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 solidified them.  China, fearful of attacks too, joined with the U.S. and other countries in combatting terrorism and the U.S.-China relationship warmed.  Since then, numerous Chinese officials have visited the White House (President Hu was there earlier this winter) and trade between the two nations has boomed.

Since Nixon’s visit back in 1972, China has become a world power and today has the world’s number two economy.  We now owe more money to China than to any other country.

Both countries seemed to want rapprochement back in ’72.  Many American politicians had been urging Nixon to soften his hard line stand against China.  Mao was worried about the Soviet Union.  He saw a friendship with the U.S. as a way to thwart the Soviets. How to get together after years of vitriolic relations, though?

Easy.  Ping Pong.

An American ping pong player, Glenn Cowan, missed his bus at the world table tennis championships in Japan in 1971 and hitched a ride on the next bus, carrying the Chinese Communist team.  They were very friendly to Cowan, even exchanging gifts.  A photo of a happy Cowan with the communist team ran in newspapers and on TV around the world.  Mao saw the door opening wide and invited the U.S. table tennis team to tour China.  That thawed relations.  It also was the olive branch Nixon was waiting for.  Nixon saw relations with China as a real coup for his presidency.  He also believed that it would enable him to jump in the public opinion polls and make his run for re-election easier.

What followed next was a combination of the television shows Mission: Impossible and The Lone Ranger.  Secretary of State Henry Kissinger feigned sickness on a state visit to Pakistan in July of 1971 and in the middle of the night flew on a top secret mission to China to meet with Chinese officials and set up Nixon’s visit.

President Nixon’s trip to China was seen in two different ways at the time.  First and foremost, it was seen as a major breakthrough in U.S.-China relations. The People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949 after the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, had been a very secretive, lurking giant for twenty-three years and no one knew much about the enormous country.  Nixon’s visit opened the door for the West.  It also astonished Nixon followers because the president had been an ardent anti-communist.  People thought he would have been the last American politician to shake hands with Chairman Mao.

At the same time, though, the week-long visit was seen as little more than diplomatic window dressing. The trip did not result in any diplomatic breakthroughs or lead to any immediate U.S.-China partnerships.  The Shanghai Communiqué, issued at the end of the visit, stressed the need for better relations but had little meaning.

Worse, four months later the Watergate scandal broke in the U.S. and Nixon’s trip to China and all of his other works were drowned in that mess.  Two years after he landed in Beijing, President Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace.

What Sellars and his colleagues could not know when they wrote the opera was that far more transpired during Nixon’s trip than anyone realized at the time.  It was not until 1999 that some of the events of that trip, and documents related to them, were declassified by American intelligence.  Those documents showed that the week was more than dinners, tours and handshakes.

Nixon promised Mao that the U.S. would not, as the Chinese leader feared, support Taiwanese independence.

Furthermore, China was in a bitter dispute with the Soviet Union at the time.  Both sides had clashed in a border dispute in 1969 that nearly brought about nuclear war.  Chinese leaders feared the massive military might of the Soviets.  Kissinger gave the Chinese leaders a top secret briefing, with maps and photos, of the Soviet buildup along the Sino-Soviet border, citing their strength in aircraft, tanks, troops, missiles, nuclear capacity and outlined their defensive geographic positions.  It was something the Chinese did not know and greatly appreciated.  Kissinger, in fact, went well beyond the parameters of his office in the briefing and told the Chinese that “nobody in our government except for the president and these people here know that we have given you this information,” he told Mao.

Nixon also said he would dissuade the Japanese from becoming involved in South Korea or Taiwan.

The secret agreements helped shaped U.S. policy towards China over the years.

All that we have now we can trace back to Nixon’s 1972 visit, told in Nixon in China.  It was a week, as Nixon said, “that changed the world.”

The opera at the Met is a good story, but really just a chronicle of an event with no real connection to later history.  There is nothing in it about Kissinger’s secret trips, Nixon’s view of the visit as a campaign booster, Mao’s widespread goals, the heavy press coverage or how Americans back home viewed the journey.  It is a bit long, slow in many places and the music at times seems muffled.  You do not get the feeling that you are watching the story of a very shrewd president, his clever advisor, Kissinger, or the charismatic and devious Mao.

Even so, Nixon in China is a treat for opera-goers, an historic American diplomatic tale set amid a Met lineup that includes La Boheme, Don PasqualeRomeo and Juliet, Boris Godunov, and Le Comte Ory.

Oh, for an opera about Spiro Agnew…

Nixon in China runs through Saturday, February 19

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at

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More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 2/15/2011

First, let me say I enjoyed Adams's opera, "Nixon in China," which I first heard while still working for the National Archives' Nixon Presidential Materials Project.

Now to my question. Most authors who post essays here do not seem to check what readers say. Still, you don’t know if that is the case with any given author unless you try to engage him. So I’ll try.

Mr. Chadwick, you write of Nixon, “He also believed that it would enable him to jump in the public opinion polls and make his run for re-election easier.” What is the basis for that assertion? While it can be said of any president that he operates in a dual world of policy making and politics, I’ve not seen evidence in working with Nixon’s textual or taped records that this was a primary motivator in the opening to the PRC. We National Archives employees paid special attention to that dual world, since the Nixon records statute (and Supreme Court opinions) required us to identify information that could be retained in the National Archives as governmental and information that should be returned to Nixon as “personal-political.” Much of the latter later was deeded back to the government by Nixon’s estate a few years ago.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked something or forgotten what I once saw or heard. Is there a particular document or tape that you have in mind that shows Nixon linking this initiative so strongly to public opinion polls prior to taking action that you raise it here in your essay?

How does your assertion that politics was a motivator fit with the fact that Nixon wrote an article about China in 1967, two years before he was sworn in as President. As the National Archives’ Nixon Presidential Library notes on its site, “Nixon retained the support of many Republicans across the country who respected his knowledge of politics and international affairs, a reputation enhanced in 1967 by Nixon's article "Asia After Vietnam" in the eminent journal Foreign Affairs.” Nixon noted in the article that the United States, “simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors.”

At the time, Nixon would have had every reason to believe Lyndon Johnson would run for re-election in 1968 and little reason to think he himself would win election to the presidency that year.

Maarja Krusten
Historian and former National Archives’ Nixon tapes archivist (1976-1990)

Posted by Smartphone during lunch break

vaughn davis bornet - 2/14/2011

I wonder how hard it would be to rewrite Nixon in China to reflect the facts adduced by Professor Chadwick?

My understanding is that opera revision was common as dirt in the old days, done to reflect disasterous receoption early on, coming and going of essential artists, and many other things.

Actually, it could be said that there is something of an obligation to "get history right" in such an opera, which cannot avoid furthering a version of "history" that isn't up to snuff.

Great essay that makes one think!

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon