Diary of a Nobody – Fractured Opera Tales 1 Paris to Frankfurt to Edinburgh “The Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with One Step” (an accidental review of “Nixon in China” at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre)

Christmas, 1991
Bobigny Theatre, Paris

Paris is colder than I imagined.
Its bones might own crumhorns and battles,
But Paris is a woman,
An inner beauty, a gloss of pretty
Despite triumphant architectural odes
Paris is a feminine city.

Christmas Eve.

The cast of Nixon in China gather
The cool/warm glow of a hotel lobby
Drinks all around
While secret Santas stand within
They’re dressed down, I’m dressed up
Well, clothes have always been my skin.

There’s an intimacy in Christmas moments
Even here, but more a sense of value
Not quite understood
Ovations may not be as they should
Nonetheless, we are sure it is good.

We’re at the Maison de la Culture
Bobigny, an adjunct town
A theatre separating creative wheat from chaff
Authentically fresh language quietly spectacular
That I suspect will soon be trite
Once nestled in common vernacular.

The Maison, or MC93
Is on the Rue de Lenine.
Did Lenin leave bleak in his wake?
Sidewalks wending toward culture and art
Are dotted in spitballs
Like jellyfish lining the shore at late summer’s start.

But that’s Metro stops away
From where we are now
In the Marais.
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 weird and interesting.
Somewhere in the gamut from crinoline to chintz
The words of Lao Tzu?
Could it be
I’ve misjudged the opera milieu?

Who would give such a gift?
Perhaps, it is Sandy,
My couscous companion.
He taught me I Ching.
Sandy likes to laugh
That is our thing.

I met Sandy at conservatory
No, that’s not true
I met him at the Met
Though he didn’t meet me
But I’m certain it was he
Ushering crowds from front row to balcony.

With an officious panache and persona
More compelling than those on the stage,
Sandy stood out never mind his costume
A bow tie and jacket, a cape in tow
An intellectual Pavarotti
But this was long ago.

And now we’re here, friends.
Can you believe it?
Did I know that then?
A rhyme to my reason? Like the driver
Of my school bus I’d discover was the son
Of my first boss, Joseph Patelson?

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step
And a broken rhyme scheme, so it seems.

Playful considerations of prescience aside
I can’t presume Sandy is Santa.
I have no answers to whys
Yet I can marvel and delight
In 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
The poetry of it cuts warm and deep
The frozen bridge to the Isle St Louis, baguettes, wine
Little pleasures I will forever keep.

And then, as if by magic,
Before me stands Notre Dame,
Our Lady, mystical ode to the Heavens.
Paris is a woman, I’ve already said.
Now, dinner with a poet, a Greek.
Greeks have a way of tracing our threads.

February 28, leap year 2020
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Tonight, I attended Scottish Opera’s co-production with Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid of Nixon in China. Having been in the opera in its earliest manifestation, I wasn’t sure if I could detach from what was briefly my performer’s skin and kin — Peter Sellar’s original production and the great performers who brought it to life.

With the first downbeat, memories flooded my mind’s scape.

Memories make getting older tolerable. Even bad memories are jigsaw pieces in the puzzle of self. I own a spate of them from this small snapshot of my life…

…memories of brunches in Paris and Frankfurt, the occasional opportunity to grab a couscous with Sandy or a quirky conversation with my long, lost Greek brother from another lifetime Jimmy Maddalena, or a quiet breakfast filled with the thoughtful musings of John Adams.

One time, over a breakfast of miso soup and fish, John asked me, “Stephanie, why are you in opera?”

I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted or pleased. I chose pleased, of course. I wasn’t yet riddled with performer’s paranoia.

In truth, my life experience as a singer in opera was to be a brush stroke at best despite a richly condensed set of experiences. Yet it stuck in other ways, persisting and insisting on a passionate though indirect interaction. Over the years, that brush has bristled with the ridiculous, the effulgent, and the regretful.

CHORUS
Soldiers of heaven hold the sky,
the morning breaks and shadows fly.
Follow the orders of the poor,
your master is the laborer
who rules the world with truth and grace.
Deal with him justly, face to face,
pay a fair price for all you buy,
pay to replace what you destroy.
Divide the landlord’s property,
take nothing from the tenantry,
do not mistreat the captive foe.
Respect women, it is their due
replace doors when you leave a house.
Roll up straw matting after use.
The people are the heroes now.
Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.
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.

Alice Goodman’s masterful libretto. My god, what lyrics.

However, in those guileless, early years, I was given the opportunity to jump onto the Nixon in China bandwagon as Mao’s third secretary — the secretary who pretty much sings in the basement, one of those rare roles where I wondered if any part of anything I sang in some of those delicious 3-part nearly doo-wop harmonies could possibly be heard over the massive orchestra and despite the aid of body mics?

Maybe the whales heard it?

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

The production in Edinburgh is a unique reconfiguration of the original, nearly totemic staging by Peter Sellars, unearthing that historic moment in 1972 from the rather literal “warehouse archives.” John Fulljames, the production’s director, manages to supplement and support the poetically expressed storyline with archival photos and videos projected onto an imaginative range of surfaces.

MAO
I spoke generally.
The line we take now is a paradox.
Among the followers of Marx
the extreme left,
the doctrinaire,
tend to be fascist.

NIXON
And the far right?

MAO
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.

You might not think it, but it’s a perfect story–nearly Shakespearian, rife with the personal flaws innate to powerful people, you know, questionable strategic choices hinged on the flex of ego with uncertain ramifications, hollow relationships forged out of ideologies inevitably questioned in the maturity of thought.

NIXON
I felt so weak with disappointment and relief everything seemed larger than life.

CHOU
I have no offspring.
In my dreams
the peasants with their hundred names,
unnamed children and nameless wives
deaden my footsteps like dead leaves;
no one I killed, but those I saw starved to death.

MAO
Saved from our decay.
Admire that perfect skeleton,
those veins, that skin like cellophane.
Take them and press them in a book.
Dare we behave as if the meek
will mark the places of the wise?

HUNG CHIANG CH’ING
The masses stride ahead of us.
We follow.

CHOU
Only they can tell how the land lies,
where the pitfall was excavated,
the mines laid…

MAO
The instant before bombs explode
intricate struggles coexist within an entity,
embraced till they ignite.

And then, there is the Second Act, an act that mirrors the stuff in Act Two of Madame Butterfly — the feminine, the hidden, the hopeful. Kooky thought, perhaps, but I see parallels between Nixon in China and Madame ButterflyButterfly’s second act – an act that is more about a relationship between women and the staggering truths about self-righteous ideologies, an act about inner maps and inner questions, inner struggles, the despair of hope and actually, the predicament of being women in zeitgeists driven by rigid patriarchies — is not far from what we experience in Nixon in China’s second act. Arguably, the second act of Butterfly is really about the relationship between Suzuki and Cio-Cio San while the second act of Nixon in China suggests the seemingly incongruous similarities equalling a relationship between Pat Nixon and Madame Mao , an unexpressed relationship forged, perhaps, by simply being women.

PAT
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.
On that bench there we’ll relax
and taste the fruit of all our actions.
Why regret life which is so much like a dream?
Let the eternal plan resume.

Adams’ emotive score of thoughts and fears, of sanitized people who are unsanitary souls, swells in the unspoken. All of us self-reflect in a high key, it’s just harder these days when sarcasm gives us license to diminish.

On the geo-political front, nothing has changed, in fact it might even be worse. Why? Because now, one could argue that building bridges is nearly trite if not reflexively slapstick in the misbegotten Trump era.

Relationships and ideology, project an unseen summary and forecast in the Third Act where the interplay of conversation and soliloquy suggests tragic ends leaving only a trail of unanswered questions, memories, and regrets.

Fulljames’ version of Act Three is interesting to me. In contrast to its former incarnation (a dream sequence anchored by a tidy row of beds), the staging was an untidy traffic pattern of private moments drifting through metaphoric landscapes. In the centre, a monument — a containment crate with an entrance and no exit. Act Three is an intimate act, one that exposes fears, doubts, incomplete hopes, and as thoughts unwind, the stage lights fade leaving Chou En Lai chasing dimming memories.

There was no shortage of applied smarts in this production. Some of the performers were unable to wear the humour, but in the end, Fulljames gave me license to see an opera that was scored deeply in my memory with new eyes…

…with the exception of Chou En Lai’s aria in Act One. I can never shed the memory of that absolutely perfect aria sung with a depth of musicality and soul by the equally soulful Sandy Sylvan. (You can hear it on YouTube pts 6 and 7, beginning around 6:34 in Pt 6)

“Stephanie, why are you in opera?”

Dunno, John. For a few moments, the energy of communicating meaning? Being onstage in the context of powerful music such as yours?

Besides, singing opera was only my second invention.

Binge-watching tip? Watch the YouTube 17-part Broadcast from Kennedy Center of Nixon in China with Walter Cronkite interviewing and commentating