Nixon in China — MET Opera Review

By Jason Kreloff

On Wednesday, April 1st, the Metropolitan Opera streamed its production of Nixon in China. Composed and conducted by John Adams, the three-act opera is based on President Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic in 1972 after the country had been under isolation for decades. 

The story follows the twists and turns of relations between Chairman Mao Tse-tung (sung by Robert Brubaker), his wife Chiang Ch’ing (Kathleen Kim), Richard Nixon (James Maddalena), his wife Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly), Premier Chou En-lai (Russell Braun), and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink).

Act I begins with Nixon and his entourage arriving in Peking, where he is welcomed by Chou En-lai with a tense handshake and strong eye contact. Camera angles from each politician’s side were used to show the static created when these strong intellectual personalities finally met.

Tensions reach a high when Nixon greets Mao in his personal library — and both titans clash up-close and personal. Nixon attempts to lead the conversation towards some kind of common ground in order to de-escalate the clear feelings of distrust. Mao, bouncing in and out of consciousness (and therefore the conversation) leaves the audience wondering if he’s senile or a philosophical and political genius who has a poetic way with words. However, while awake, he travels through frantic vocal phrases which emanate feelings of mental volatility.

The act ends with a Chinese-American summit and dinner. Although the Chairman was not present, all of his advisers and government members were, and Nixon in a toast praised both nations. Soft vocal conversations between the president and his wife reveal the sharing of a secret during the dinner.

The second act follows the First Lady’s experience as an American tourist in China: seeing how the people live together in communes, and viewing a Peking Opera put on by Chiang Ch’ing. Pat Nixon was deeply affected by a scene where a landlord gets whipped and beaten by female Party members. Worried for the landlord’s life, the First Lady intervenes to stop the whipping. This offends Chiang Ch’ing, who ends the interaction by claiming her non-stop commitment to Chairman Mao, the philosophies stated in his Red Book, and praising the glory of the Cultural Revolution.

At the top of the final act, the two power couples (and Chou En-lai) lay in their respective beds and think about their pasts and futures. Two hours into the opera, Janis Kelly’s voice began to sound too repetitive — rough, yet spastic. Chou En-lai has the last word, almost whimpering to himself: “how much of what we did was good?” showing a self-aware attitude that Chairman Mao lacked so intensely.

Overall, the audio and video streaming quality was superb. Multiple high-resolution cameras switched often, allowing detailed closeups of performers while still providing a panoramic, sweeping stage view. The orchestra was captured fully with area microphones and every vocalist was spot-mic’d. The clarity of the mix added a lot to the experience. 

John Adams conducted his own score, so every musical motif was executed with microscopic accuracy. But Brubaker’s Mao was the highlight of the opera. He thrashed about the stage one minute, and passed out the next (still the most intimidating person in the room even while incapacitated). Despite some vocal mishaps, The MET Opera’s performance of Nixon in China was an entertaining way to merge history and music. But at a runtime of three hours, including all the interviews with the cast, it only goes on a little too long. 

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