Less than 10 minutes before curtain time for Nixon in China last night, the Metropolitan Opera House entranceway was backed up with operagoers, like cars trapped on Beijing’s Second Ring Road, inching toward the ticket-scanners. On the far side of the scanners, someone stumbled and fell—harmlessly, it seemed—descending the stairs to the expensive seats. Women, some of them, wore tall heels and unusual, gleaming accessories, which is not always how people present themselves on a Tuesday at the opera in the 21st century. It was an event; New York thrills for the staging of a modern masterpiece (only 24 years after Houston!).
In its New York production, John Adams’ opera has acquired an extra chorus. Besides the sonorous Chinese masses and the trio of secretaries who caper around the doddering Mao Tse-tung, echoing his aphorisms, now there are voices raised entirely offstage and away from the theater, denouncing the unkind portrayal of the show’s last living historic principal, Henry Kissinger.
Interviewed in the New Yorker after seeing a rehearsal, Kissinger’s former assistant, Winston Lord, told Gay Talese he found the opera’s version of his old boss “gratuitous and ugly”:
[“M]aking Kissinger a lecherous, cruel character is beyond the pale. It turns a heroic figure into a cardboard monster. There is no artistic rationale that explains this. One can only suspect a personal vendetta by the creators.”
A personal vendetta! Perhaps Adams or his director, Peter Sellars, is
. Because really, unless he had ordered the carpet-bombing of your own relatives, how could you view the Peace Prize winner in a negative light?
Soon after Lord’s denunciation came a piece on the front of the
by the paper’s former executive editor
, who collected a Pulitzer for his work as a reporter covering Nixon’s visit to China:
[T]he Henry A. Kissinger I know from years of professional contact is just a wee bit more fascinating and complicated than the lecherous lackey of landlords who drags his namesake through the muck in the Met’s drama.
Truly, it’s appalling when the opera’s libretto has Kissinger gloating that his
and sneeringly declaring that it will be none of America’s business if the Soviet Union
. Oh, sorry; that was Henry A. Kissinger in real life—not a cardboard monster, but a living, breathing one, with blood and napalm on his hands. The randy clown on the Met stage is, if anything, a gentle interpretation of the record.
But these theater criticisms didn’t seem to be directed toward the general audience or the world of documented fact. They read as flattery for the great man himself, propitiation for the opera’s insult. As public relations, the gesture was self-defeating; the real message was that Kissinger is every bit the despotic, medieval figure outsiders imagine, and the very thought of his displeasure sends courtiers scurrying.
The Frankel piece was a reminder that in addition to being the newspaper of record for the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation, the Times is also, still, a sort of blank stationery on which the members of the elite class jot personal notes to one another. Frankel was defending Kissinger against an opera brought to the Met by its general manager,
, the son of
—the paper’s formidable former managing editor and the creator-god of its culture desk. Frankel, as executive editor, outranked the managing editor, but Arthur Gelb came before him and reigned longer. Court politics.
After its service to Henry A. was done, Frankel’s essay was meant to pry History (or the celebrated first draft of it) from the dirty grasp of Art—arguing that there should be a statute of limitations on mining the news for drama, to protect “living reality” from being “blatantly harnessed to bait the audience.” The Times arts desk, perhaps recklessly, showed what it thought of that notion by putting Frankel’s work side by side with a story about the London production of the
As a proto-historian, Frankel was offended that the opera did not dwell explicitly enough on the damage Mao did to the Chinese people. Maybe Chou En-lai’s mournful singing in Act Three about “rivers of blood” was unclear? It is true that Mao oversaw or set in motion tens of millions of deaths, while Kissinger’s body count topped out somewhere in the low hundreds of thousands. But Mao did have much more to work with.
Regardless, the notion that the events addressed in the opera are live news is an odd one. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s visit; we are much further now from 1972 than 1972 was from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The opera is set in “Peking,” not Beijing, and the names of the Chinese characters are old-fashioned transliterations: Chiang Ch’ing for Jiang Qing, Chou En-lai for Zhou Enlai, Mao Tse-tung for Mao Zedong. The crowd at the Met has had plenty of time to become aware of the underlying terrors and ironies.
Or to frame at it another way: Nixon in China, the opera, premiered two years before the Tian’anmen Square incident. History moves on.
Frankel, though, still wants to break the news. The sight of sweepers moving across the stage reminds him of a moment when, despite the tight image management of the visit, he glimpsed the truth of Mao’s China:
For what I really saw was hundreds of thousands of women trudging through the streets at dawn, raking away perhaps an inch of snow with pathetic brooms of cord-bound twigs. As I wrote at the time and wonder still: What power can turn out such multitudes at the drop of a snowflake? What force can evoke such pride of work and thoroughness? What poverty commands such labor?
For the record, you can still see women with twig brooms sweeping the streets of Beijing. The brooms are cheap and effective, and it is a very dusty city. Right outside the Gucci store, you can see them working.