Just 13 years after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, a heroic opera about him seemed like a sure flop. Today, it’s part of the global repertoire.
Opera houses don’t usually have to protect themselves against libel suits. But before curtains rose at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, the venue’s management took out a massive insurance policy. The team knew the upcoming show would be a lightning rod. And now, as the world premiere approached, they were getting nervous.
They weren’t the only ones. As the audience anxiously filed in, the minimalist orchestral prelude built simple patterns that crested and morphed. The set, on the other hand, was anything but austere. As the music crescendoed, a life-size airliner landed on stage: Richard Nixon’s Spirit of ’76. The sight of the massive prop sent the audience into uncertain applause. Things were only about to get stranger.
When the door of the plane swung open, Nixon emerged from the stairs, belting out an aria. In rhyming couplets, he sang of the “murmuring down below” and rats—his political enemies—that “begin to chew the sheets” back home, lying in wait for his failures.
From its opening scene, Nixon in China, this brainchild of a precocious 30-year-old director, promised to be a complete departure from tradition. By diving into fresh history and painting a heroic picture of a man whose legacy was far more dubious, Nixon in China was no doubt a gutsy work of art. But was it any good? That’s been a subject of debate for critics ever since. Could Nixon in China be the great savior of opera, helping it navigate the modern terrain of MTV and the 24-hour news cycle? Or was it simply an audacious act of bravado poised to fizzle out?
Nixon’s Big Adventure
On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon made a shocking announcement. In a televised address to the American people, he stated, “There can be no stable and enduring peace without the participation of the People’s Republic of China.” The implications were staggering. Since the end of World War II, the United States and Communist PRC had at best ignored each other and at worst fought a proxy war on the Korean Peninsula. But as the 1960s drew to a close, both Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong were beginning to see the advantage of improved relations.