, a Pre-Opera Talks Lecturer is a versatile performer frequently featured in opera and choral performances throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Before devoting himself to a career in music, John taught English in Guangzhou, China. Below John shares some of his memories on Nixon’s historic visit to China.
When Nixon in China premiered in 1987 I was busy being a college student. Contemporary American opera was as foreign to me as Chinese itself. In any case, how could an opera about the ‘opening’ of China orchestrated by Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung fifteen years earlier possibly be as relevant and gripping as current events unfolding there?
In June 1989, I was transfixed, along with the rest of the world, by TV coverage of democracy protests in Beijing. I saw students erect tent villages in the monumental plain of Tiananmen Square, stage hunger strikes, build a papier-mâché Statue of Liberty and issue manifestos calling for political reform - all with the support of the Chinese people and, it seemed, the acquiescence of China’s Communist leaders. The hope that China might grant political freedoms to match economic ones was intoxicating. But I watched for another reason. I was about to move to China for a year to teach English, possibly to some of these very same students. What an opportunity to witness a country is such historic transition!
[Tiananmen Square. Photo by AP Jeff Widener]
Weeks later I found myself in the midst of a very different story. After a power struggle, China’s leaders had dispatched tanks and troops to clear the square, killing hundreds - perhaps thousands. As brutal as the military crackdown was, the censorship that followed was equally devastating. The heroic storyline of the protests was replaced by a party line that blamed a group of ‘black hands’ for threatening China’s stability. Traumatized, students returned home unable to publicly discuss their experience. With campuses locked and the economy sputtering, many pursued the only available option: studying abroad, which meant taking a standardized English test. These were the students I befriended during my year in China. They surprised me in many ways.
First, they still knew how to party. We cooked and drank together, visited amusement parks, went on picnics. Second, their frustrations were fully matched by their pragmatism. Stifled, depressed and utterly rejected by their own government, they still sensed economic opportunity would soon return. With an intuitive sense of history that is their birthright, many young Chinese positioned themselves to take advantage of China’s inevitable rise. They were my peers and, in self-imposed exile from my own country, I came to feel like one of them.
[John Bischoff with students, 1989-90]
Nixon in China would have had plenty to say to me then. But as it turns out, I’m a newcomer to the piece. Like only opera can do, it once again lands me in a place that feels both foreign and familiar and asks me to hold on fast as a somewhat surreal version of history unfolds. It works with ‘impressionistic shards’ of memory, as director Michael Cavanagh calls them: not just sharp images like the news flashes imprinted on our collective memory of Mao and Nixon shaking hands, for instance, but also soft-edged ones like Pat Nixon’s vision of a passerby looking in at a large family seated around a table and Madame Mao's lingering taste of wild apricots. My own memories of China are often like that: strikingly vivid and strangely disjointed.
[John Bischoff with Mao in China, 1989-90]
Even after a brief acquaintance with Nixon in China, the opera’s sights, sounds and words stick in my head: the somber beauty of the opening scales that ripple upwards, the great dance-hall-meets-Debussy theme underscoring the dream-like third act, the machine-gun repetitiveness of Mao’s and Nixon’s verbal sparring and the visionary poetry written for Chou En-Lai in the banquet scene. He sings, “We toast that endless province whose frontier we occupy from hour to hour, holding in perpetuity the ground our people won today from vision to inheritance.” It’s a lesson I learned during my year in China and have come to appreciate on a daily basis. Nixon in China reminds me of its truth. Each moment does represent a new frontier, a foreign country in which we are given the uneasy task of trying to understand, follow and create our own history.