On May 1, 1994, Hunter S Thompson published his celebrated obituary of former US president Richard Nixon, whom Thompson remembered as “a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. If the right people had been in charge of his funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”
The 20th anniversary of Nixon’s death is a good time to revisit the only opera to have taken a living American president as its subject (it premiered in 1987). Nixon in China, with a libretto by Alice Goodman and a score by John Goodman, follows the president’s visit to China, to meet with Mao Tse-tung, in 1972.
This production begins splendidly, with a video projection of a jet plane, in which a window is suddenly lit up to reveal the thoughtful figure of Nixon. This is followed by a scene in which Nixon, with his wife, Pat, and colleague, Henry Kissinger, descend from the plane to be welcomed by Chinese officials led by Premier Chou En-lai.
This is one of the strangest works for the stage I have reviewed. Nixon meets with a cryptic Mao Tse-tung and his three female assistants; they all get hammered at a banquet; Pat Nixon is taken on a tour of factories and schools. The Nixons then attend the Peking Opera to view a performance of The Red Detachment of Women, a ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Chi’ing. Things turn surreal as Kissinger takes on the role of an evil landlord’s agent in the ballet, and even the Nixons enter the action.
Nixon in China is 155 minutes long, with two 20-minute intervals. Goodman has taken little account of rhythm, or anything audience-friendly, in the construction of her lyrics, while Adam is averse to composing a single memorable tune. This is a spirited and spectacular production, but one must wonder if Nixon in China merits such attention.