Did you know we are presenting Nixon in China
in the 40th anniversary year of the historic visit? In the Education Department we don't often find ourselves discussing an opera based on an actual event, especially a recent one! So I decided to do some studying...
What struck me most is the sheer improbability of the visit ever taking place. US-China relations had been at best cool and at worst hostile since 1949, when the Communists under Mao Tse-tung established control of mainland China and Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan. The US backed the Kuomintang and refused to recognize Mao's party as the legitimate government of China. [Right: Nixon in China opera; photo by Cory Weaver.]
As American concerns about the spread of Communism grew during the 1950s, the gulf between the People's Republic and the United States widened. At the Geneva conference of 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a very public display of his unwillingness to negotiate with the Chinese when he snubbed the outstretched hand of Chinese premier Chou En-lai.
Not only was American opinion firmly opposed to China, Richard Nixon did not seem likely to make any peaceful overtures. In fact he established his reputation with a firm stance against Communism. While in Congress, Nixon served on the House Un-American Activities Committee, playing a primary role in the investigation of the alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss.
Nor was Mao Tse-tung at all inclined to favor the Americans, or foreigners in general. He felt the US was determined to destroy the revolution the Communists had worked so hard to achieve. China fought for North Korea during the Korean War, supported the Communists in Vietnam, and funneled aid to anti-Western movements throughout Asia. And in 1966 the Cultural Revolution effectively closed China to the world.
So from 1949 onward China and the US had virtually no interactions: no trade passed directly between the two countries; no American journalists reported from China or vice versa; no athletes competed against each other. But by the late 1960s, opinions on both sides began to change. China recognized how isolated it was, the long war in Vietnam dampened anti-Communist fervor in the US, and both countries realized each could act as a check on the Soviet Union for the other. So in 1969, Nixon's National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began to lay the groundwork for negotiations. [Left: Nixon in China opera; photo by Cory Weaver.]
In his typical grandiose style, Nixon dubbed his visit, "the week that changed the world." Adams' and Goodman's opera reflects this sense of history-in-the-making in Nixon's Act I aria, "News, News, News." The aria follows directly after Nixon and Chou En-lai shake hands, alleviating the memory of Dulles' snub 18 long years before:
Though we spoke quietly
The eyes and ears of history
Caught every gesture
And every word, transforming us
As we, transfixed,
What had seemed so improbable now seemed like destiny.
For further reading, check out Margaret MacMillan's Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.