Nixon in China but Not (Yet) Hong Kong

by Cathy Barbash

I’ve caught the Met’s Nixon in China twice, live and by Saturday radio broadcast, and have been trying to find out if any US-based Chinese officials or their surrogates have attended, and if so what they thought of it. No evidence has surfaced yet, though I was pleased to see that China Daily’s US online edition covered it, albeit more as a feature. This constitutes official acknowledgement that the work exists and is of interest, the first step in what could be either a long or short road to a production in China. More on that later.

The opera was telecast in HD last Saturday in both in Japan and South Korea, but, to no one’s surprise, not in Hong Kong. Instead, this week’s Hong Kong offering was Don Carlo. I have been told that Don Carlo was originally scheduled for that day in Hong Kong. Not sure whether this means that Nixon was not originally on offer: was Don Carlo the original programming in Japan and Korea too, but then they changed their choice when Nixon became available?  Does this have to do with conservative audience tastes, realpolitik, or a little of each? Still trying to sort this out.  Inquiries to the Met, while graciously received, have not yet been answered. My take? I loved the opera, but I would wager that the current production could not be presented in China. I would agree with the belief expressed elsewhere that the simulated sex, even more than the politics, would be the deal-killer.  

Those of us who work in China enjoyed the many resonant and evocative production details, from the trees at the airport, the platitudes at official meetings, and the need to know what one does and doesn’t discuss at such meetings (at one point Nixon is told to “save that for the minister”), to the big tables and endless ganbei toasts at the banquet, and the squared-off black beds in the last act. Mark Morris captures the spirit of The Red Detachment of Women with great élan.

The Met invited all of the remaining Old China Hands who had worked on the Nixon visit to the dress rehearsal, a gracious and savvy gesture. Resulting press coverage has been fascinating. Here are links to some of the best:

To which Alex Ross eloquently reacted in his February 12 post on his blog, The Rest is Noise.

In China, younger generation cultural professionals are in fact interested in presenting the opera either live or telecast, though this has not yet been possible. Chinese netizens have commented on the opera, and some have watched online excerpts from previous productions. One comment on reads:

我擦, 这史。老美比我们认识还深刻啊。
Wǒ cā, zhè duàn lìshǐ. Lǎo měi bǐ wǒmen rènshi hái shēnkè a.
My god, this period of history. Old U.S. knows it more deeply than we do. 

I had suggested to relevant people that a private feed into the U.S. Embassy might be arranged for use as a special by-invitation event, as an opportunity for dialogue. It seems the stars did not align. I will go out on a limb however and bet that within the next 5 years, one or more of the major Chinese cultural institutions will produce the opera. All have the resources, guanxi (connections), and the appetite for projects of this scale. And when this happens, that will truly be news…news…news….

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