Before The Stage Went Dark

The art in life, the art in politics, and the politics in art.

Reflections in retrograde and forward after a performance of Nixon in China at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, February 2020

Christmas, 1991
Paris, France

Paris is colder than I imagined.
Its bones contain crumhorns and battles,
but Paris is a woman,
handsome, yet pretty.
Despite bold architectural odes
Paris is a feminine city.
Christmas Eve. 
The cast of Nixon in China convenes
in a Parisian hotel lobby.
Drinks all around,
secret Santas within.
I’m dressed up; they’re dressed down, 
well, clothes have always been my skin.
All of us, cast and crew, share 
a sense of where we’re going
from opera’s stolid junction.
Ovations aren’t yet as they should,
we’re sure it is good.
Our theatre? Longue minutes de Paris,
La Maison de la Culture à Bobigny,
separating art’s wheat from chaff,
the smartly spectacular,
perhaps, turning trite
once nestled in common vernacular?
The Maison, or MC93
rides the Rue de Lenine.
Lenine left a phlegmy trail– 
sidewalks wending toward culture and art
are dotted in frozen spit balls
like jellyfish shores at late summer’s start.
But that’s Metro stops away
From the Marais;
where we are now.
Gifts are given be they la or le.
Le cadeau que je reçois, un livre–Tai Te Ching
(The Book of the Way) by Lao Tzu.
Lao Tzu? How pleasing?
How weird and intriguing?
Amid crinoline and chintz, 
a book by Lao Tzu?
Could it be
I’ve misjudged the opera milieu?
Who would give such a gift?
It felt personal, specific.
Maybe Sandy?
Sandy taught me I Ching.
We share laughs and couscous platters; 
that’s our Parisian thing.
I met Sandy at conservatory;
no, not true, but nearly.
I met him at the Met,
though he didn’t meet me,
ushering crowds 
from front row to balcony.
And now, we’re here, friends,
Did I know that then?
A rhyme to my reason? 
I have more than one:
Danny, the school bus driver, 
his dad–my first boss, Joseph Patelson.
Serendipity aside,
my impressionable mind
requires restraint from presumption.
Yet, I cannot deny my utter delight–
at the way life resonates
still, however, and despite…
Christmas Day.
Cold and snowy.
I plod boulevards and streets. 
It’s lonely in Paris, and yet,
its poetry cuts warm and deep,
the frozen bridge to the Isle St Louis, baguettes, wine,
little pleasures I’ll forever keep.
And there, as if by magic,
jutting out of blanketed static 
Notre Dame.
Paris is a woman, I’ve already said.
Now, dinner with a poet, a Greek.
Greeks have a way of tracing our threads.

February 28th, leap year 2020
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Tonight, I attended Scottish Opera’s co-production with Royal Danish Theatre/Teatro Real Madrid of John Adam’s Nixon in China

Nixon in China represented a key juncture in my early career as an opera singer. Despite a richly-appointed set of anecdotes, memorable quotes, and lessons, my life-experience as an opera singer would be a brushstroke…a fascinating flourish. The people with whom I sang were astonishing artists from a different, and now, distant era in opera. As a young singer lined up for a career, I was reluctant. Although tantalised by the art of opera, I was turned off by the business and pushed too soon.

The people are the heroes now.
Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plough.
When we look up, the fields are white
with harvest in the morning light and mountain ranges one by one
rise red beneath the harvest moon.

Ah, Alice Goodman’s masterful libretto. 

In those guileless, exploratory years as an opera singer, I jumped on the Nixon in China bandwagon when offered to play Mao’s Third Secretary

A baritone could have sung Mao’s Third Secretary better. I wondered if any part of anything I sang in the delicious, 3-part, nearly doo-wop harmonies could be heard over the massive orchestra, even with the aid of body mics.

I’m sure the whales heard it.

Tonight’s production of Nixon in China in Edinburgh was a fresh take. The dramatic ruse? The unearthing of Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing from the literal warehouse archives. John Fulljames, the production’s director, supported the storyline with archival photos/videos projected onto imaginative surfaces. Though I rarely like newsreel projections as theatrical device (they feel inorganic and distract), the images were cleverly embedded in the director’s concept. 

All patriots were brothers once:
let us drink to the time
when they shall be brothers again.

ACT 1. Ganbei, the repeated Chinese toast (bottoms up) in the dramatic finale of Act 1, a chaotic press banquet in the Great Hall of the People jammed with dignitaries, where Zhou Enlai promotes a common reach toward a more tolerant world. Zhou’s speech is a lyrical repose before the mayhem of Secretaries multiplying like rabbits while shifting from one character to the next. I recognised those moves (bird-like head movement, quick gait with lifeless upper body) and I had to smile. I wondered if the Secretaries onstage in this production were thinking what I thought so many years ago as I frenetically mimed “English or Mandarin translations” of leaders’ addresses and encomiums? One recent critic referred to the Secretaries as chorus girls. Wrong. We were the Maoettes, still, Mao’s Secretaries are no less thematically and musically valuable than the Three Ladies in Magic Flute.

Among the followers of Marx
the extreme left,
the doctrinaire,
tend to be fascist.
And the far right?
True Marxism is called that by
the extreme left.
Occasionally the true left calls
a spade a spade and tells the left it’s right.

Nixon’s visit to China is a perfect story for opera. It’s a Shakespearian travesty with ugly underpinnings, a clumsy synergy of irony and perceived destiny sprung from the conceit of power; you know, questionable strategic choices hinged on the flex of ego, hollow relationships forged out of ideologies inevitably questioned in the maturity of thought?

This is prophetic!
I foresee a time will come when
luxury dissolves into the atmosphere like a perfume,
and everywhere the simple virtues root
and branch and leaf and flower...
Let the eternal plan resume.
At the breast of history, 
I sucked and pissed 
Thoughtless and heartless, 
red and blind.

ACT 2. Meet Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) –fervent, cruel; and Pat Nixon–deferential, subordinate. 

Or was she?

Pat Nixon may have won Outstanding Homemaker of the Year; she may have made Richard Nixon her full-time job; she may have been an understated First Lady, but at heart, she wasn’t subordinate and could be outspoken to the chagrin of her husband. After learning about Pat’s advocacy of feminist issues–female judges serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, women being fully represented in the House, that abortion was “a woman’s personal choice,” that Pat publicly championed the Equal Rights Amendment–I was turned off by a New York Times article circa 1970. It was nothing short of condescending, nearly jeering Pat as the “ultimate good sport.” (ironically, the ERA’s most prominent proponent, Gloria Steinem, interviewed Pat asking her what she identified with other than her daughters and husband (?). Pat understandably punched back, “I never had time to think about things like that–who I wanted to be, or what I admired, or to have ideas… I’ve never had it that easy.” I admire Gloria Steinem, who has retrospectively commented that the interview focused on empathy, not criticism, but she might have asked the question with less judgment.)

Madame Mao was venal and ambitious (love her stage name, however, “Blue Apple,” “Lán Píng”). When her parents split (her father was abusive), Madame M’s mother fled with her daughter, but life was unstable. Soon, little Jian Qing was sent to her maternal grandparents, attending drama school and, later, becoming a professional actor. She married three times and had a spate of lovers. 

Pat grew up poor–nothing was on offer. She lost both her parents by the time she was seventeen, and though Pat may have lacked Madame Mao’s ruthless ambition, she worked hard to put herself through school. As a Quaker, she was principled (“conscience is the basis of morality“) while Madame Mao swung into the extremities of prurience and improvidence – large gestural and cautionary strokes like a Chinese opera.

The visual language in opera-staging is often metaphorical, to be grasped or overlooked. 

In Sellars’ version of the Act 2 finale, a terrified Pat Nixon loses herself in the violent narrative of Madame Mao’s ballet. 

In Fulljames’ version, Pat vigorously applauds, perhaps advocating the feminist values held within the Little Red Book by Mao Zedong–the gist of Madame Mao’s aria?

Both representations are valuable. In Sellars’ version, Pat represents America and its fear of the left-wing; in Fulljames’ version, Pat represents herself, a woman far more forward-thinking than we might imagine.

Although feminism was an intrinsic part of Chinese Cultural Revolution rhetoric (The times have changed, men and women, are the same.), it was mostly lip service. If anything, Mao’s feminist views impacted women in the West more than women in China. Today, Chinese feminism only survives because of the Feminist Five, who challenged the patriarchal authoritarianism of Xi Jinping. 

That was the time I should have died
In my dreams
the peasants with their hundred names…
…deaden my footsteps like dead leaves;
no one I killed, but those I saw starved to death.
Saved from our decay...
…Dare we behave as if the meek
will mark the places of the wise?
The masses stride ahead of us.
We follow.

For those of us who participated in that first incarnation of Nixon in China, the experience was meaningful; we cut the edge of old forms. It was a different kind of opera theatre because of Adams’ score and Sellars’ unique sensibility as a stage director; moreover, it lent dramatic currency to what was at the time a nearly recent event in history courtesy of the remarkable Alice Goodman. The blend made for something rare, despite the excoriating words of critics who, in hindsight, got it wrong. Nixon in China was not about the creative input of any one of the original artistic contributors but the amalgam of three very different artistic sensibilities building a new idea on common ground.

I laugh when John Adams refers to the production’s original intention as anti-grand opera; it’s quintessentially grand, the orchestral voice–stentorian. Adams’ emotive score, where delusory aspiration swells in ironic 20th century counterpoint or raw personal truths are offered under the cover of Vaudevillian themes, matches the large characters it hopes to embrace. I guess we all self-reflect in a high key; it’s just harder these days when those feelings are moderated by sarcasm and psychology, unless, of course, you’re part of the Trump glitterati with a leitmotif of Y.M.C.A.

For many Americans, Nixon’s trip to China was an unexpected diplomatic parlay; the stakes were high and possibly misrepresented. A stockpile of bad press, not to mention an unprecedented resignation, tarnished Nixon’s visit, up-ending and exposing the fragility of egos. 

What follows in the wake of titanic ambition? History reduced to paper archive. 

ACT 3. In contrast to Sellars’ staging (a dream sequence of shifting bedfellows in a terminal dance), Fulljames’ Act 3 was a traffic pattern of private moments drifting through evocative inner landscapes. In the centre, a faceless monument to erstwhile giants–a containment crate with no exit. 

Moving away from the bumptious posturing of Act 1, Act 3 expresses vulnerability, exposing fears, doubts, incomplete hopes, and, as credos unhinge and unwind, the stage lights fade, leaving Zhou Enlai chasing dimming memories.

Oh, well, the ego is a double-edged sword, necessary and potentially dangerous. We all have one. I have no problem with ego, provided the psyche isn’t bereft of a moral compass, and the mind has absorbed the words of a book or two; books encourage textured and nuanced reflections. 

There was no shortage of applied smarts in this production (though some of the performers were unable to wear the subtlety of the opera’s humour). It’s not easy to attend operas if you’ve been in them (except Mozart operas), difficult to relax unless you’re entirely engaged by the performers or the evolved universe onstage. I was relieved by Fulljames’ directorial ambition in shifting the opera from contemporaneous to archive. It made for a different conversation. Of course, I enjoyed the performance for the memories, but more for the re-examination, and, in that, a souvenir became a keepsake.

My only regret was not hearing Zhou Enlai’s Act 1 aria sung with the immense depth of intelligence and musicality of the soulful and dearly departed Sandy Sylvan. 

LOCKDOWN. My, my, how things change.

Sadly, the archival overhead projector for 2020 displays too many snapshots of tragedy and loss. 

The Pandemic darkened a world that was already going dark. When I look at how the world has changed since Nixon in China’s 1991 opera residency in Bobigny, I am amazed by the shifts and clumsy unravelling of diplomacy, how our world seeks to separate rather than unify, point fingers rather than embrace a platform of positive change. Cancel Culture? I struggle with those who believe that admitting wrongs won’t help make things right. 

On the geopolitical front, Nixon’s bridges are bust. The Pandemic played into Trump’s eager force of destiny, and let’s face it, “building bridges” is not part of the zeitgeist of nationalism and is nearly a trite if not reflexively slapstick concept in the misbegotten Trump era. The American First World has sold itself out to buzz words and preposterous conspiracies. Post-Trump presidency, we’ve become a volatile country with an unpredictable leadership forecast; how could any government seek to ally without serious reservation? 

I have never stopped valuing opera. Why? Its stories focus on people – the arc of character in crises or controversy.

I’m interested in the moment when Pat Nixon decided to wear a pantsuit in a public forum. She was the first. Does that sound trivial? Pat’s choice was no less trivial than the abandonment of the bone-breaking girdle or bound feet. 

But Pat’s story is yet to be told.

Despite the large-scale posturing of political forces in Nixon in China, I lose myself in Pat Nixon’s hidden story, her response to the narrow black-and-white purview of the press and public. Her decency didn’t make for good storytelling, not even in the opera, but, let’s face it, the opera wasn’t a 70s sitcom, The Nixons in China. Still, I am taken with the smaller points that make those who rise to the unexpected tippy-top more human.

People, not ideas, make politics and history, as they do in opera.

It’s a shame opera is elitist, if just for the price tag, and it’s not always assisted by erudite reviewers whose erudition often undermines art’s effort. The critics might get some of it right, but they, too, lack objectivity within the limits of their expectations. Critics can make a tragedy of new opera.

I prefer new operas that deal with contemporary history to old operas used as platforms for narratives of a different time and circumstance. The narrative of the opera itself already speaks volumes. Do audiences lack sophistication in drawing parallels, in history repeating itself? Does Carmen have to be a Basque rebel when the grim history of Roma remains tragically current? In the opera, the classic depiction of Carmen as hypersexualised femme fatale certainly deserves an overhaul in direction, the lyrics to the Habanera hold deeper truths in the Romani creed and, arguably, characterise Carmen as a feminist. Isn’t it enough to represent The Marriage of Figaro for what it was, a bold reinvention of the Beaumarchais statement play, banned for its political content, and later described by Napoleon as the (French) Revolution in action

The joy of watching an opera that was seminal in my development as an artist resonated. In the following days, weeks, months, it resonated even more. When great theatre offers deep reflections, it is magic. 

That night in February 2020 was a gift paid forward. In subsequent deep reflections courtesy of Lockdown, my thoughts have floated on questions triggered by that performance at the Festival Theatre. I have certainly reflected on a rhyme to my reason–where I’ve been, where I’ve landed. I’ve thought about other people–their humanity in dark moments. These thoughts were not only inspired by what I saw onstage that February night but in what I recognised as the ironically deft intertwining of theatre and world stages. 

All the world’s a stage, choose your truths.

Theatre is a valued imperative in observing life through beautifully-conceived words and music. We are bigger than our colloquial selves. Nothing can replace live performance, especially now, when so much is beaten to death in reckless chatter. Art has a way of cutting through the babble.  

Let’s make more art!

 “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” –Lao Tzu

and so I continue to wander…

©2020 SVlahos