Nixon in China in New York

At the opera last week, first two boxes down from mine, then right in front of me at the bar, was the former governor general of Canada. As celebrity sightings go it doesn’t beat sitting next to Dr. Ruth once, but a head of state is a head of state. That was not what C. thought, though. “Do you know who that is?” I asked, and he did not miss a beat: “Unless she’s a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, I’m not interested.”

Who could blame him? Who else matters? Much has been made lately of the transformed position of Tricky Dick in the American imagination, but what was really inconceivable for John Adams and his collaborators when they wrote Nixon in China in 1987 was that, by its Met premiere in 2011, the presidency itself would be approaching global irrelevance. It’s a funny, Egyptian-inflected moment, of course. And it’s perhaps unfair to consider the US (or the President specifically) only in apposition to the People’s Republic—though the Chinese setting of the opera seems almost overkill, as any work of art about America today would be about China by default. But as Nixon sings in Act I, while China lives in the present, in America “it’s yesterday night.” Perhaps the day is not far off when Barack Obama in Box 15 will excite C. just as little.

The two of us were recently back from China. “I would not say that you couldn’t pay me to live there, but it would take a lot,” C. said at the first intermission, freezing on the terrace as we craned to look one more time at the repellent Chagalls. After a weekend in which two New Yorkers told me they were bunking off to Beijing, it was a nice surprise. As one of my oldest friends recently pointed out to me, his hand on my shoulder while a little trio did a Mandarin-language version of “Close To You,” moving to China or not is a desperately personal question. You’re not really needed, as everyone else is already there.

When it premiered in Houston in 1987, Nixon in China carried multiple burdens, only some of which were musical. The Nixons of course were still alive; fewer people observed that Mao’s widow Jiang Qing was too, languishing in prison after her death sentence was commuted. (She was released for medical reasons in 1991 and hanged herself soon after.) They’re gone now, though Kissinger is still skulking around, and the opera, with its dreamy, almost plot-free structure—a series of loosely connected tableaux in the Great Hall of the People, a Beijing factory, and finally the leaders’ bedrooms—has a different weight. Its performance at the Met, under Adams’s own baton, feels less like a delayed coronation than the revisiting of a repertory piece, its Chinese setting only the most obvious reminder of new American circumstances.

Much of Act II features a performance of The Red Detachment of Women, one of the so-called eight model plays, the Party-approved operas and ballets that were masterminded by Jiang Qing. In 1972, the President and first lady sat next to Jiang and politely applauded the depiction of revolutionary victory over the running dogs of the imperialist petty bourgeoisie. In Nixon in China, however, the performance gets a little messier. Jiang–sung by the Korean soprano Kathleen Kim on the borderline of insanity, each high D like a bullet–starts to reprimand the performers, the mise-en-abyme collapses, the stage erupts into a struggle session, and class enemies (portrayed by dolls) get beaten. The Nixons are shoved aside.

That scene might have appeared to audiences at the original Nixon in China production as a helpful reminder of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, somewhere over there, before focusing again on Nixon and Kissinger, Watergate and Klute. But it feels different now, and not just because those horrors are better attested than before. What the libretto calls the “behemoth [that] pulls the peasants’ plow” is no longer foreign; the Cultural Revolution is the history of the early 1970s in a way Nixon is not. Our history, if anyone can be said to have a national history anymore, is no longer ours; we have another, broader one.

I went back to Beijing a few weeks ago, in part to demonstrate something to New York: that I did not accept its presumptions, that I was not complacent. I was glib and overconfident, strutting through the hutong and the shopping malls as arrogant as, well, as Nixon; worse, I thought almost exclusively in oppositional terms, which serves nobody. There is, I may as well confess, some appeal to indulging the unreconstructed modernist desire to live in the epicenter of something, and for that Beijing is hard to improve upon. (A former professor of mine: “It’s 1890 and you don’t live in Paris.”) But of course there is no caput mundi anymore, and there probably will never be one again; there are only networks, collections of nodes and channels—which feels exciting in every city on the planet except my hometown.

When I moved back home to New York last year, and friends asked how I was getting on, I had a little argument I would deploy, although it never wholly convinced me: the place may be in decline, but there’s no reason to believe that one city affords more potentiality than another, not if you have a computer and an airport. I still believe that you can build a life anywhere, but I would add this caveat: history can drag you down as much as cost of living or quality of transportation or weather. It can be an impediment to getting things done.

And New York, which unlike the European capitals has not yet internalized its own degeneration, is a particularly tough place, because at every turn you are reminded of the promise of the modern, how great it could have been. I might be singularly unqualified to assess this, since my judgments of New York are weighted with all sorts of familial and amorous and indeed political baggage, but it does feel as if New York is the only place on earth that is not part of the current century; instead it seems an exclave from the present or, to steal a friend’s harsh expression, “a zombie bank in the shape of a city.” Whether this is strategic or ignorant, defensive or clueless, I don’t know. At the Met, watching a twenty-four-year-old opera labeled “contemporary,” it felt like both.

For the moment, though, New York is still home, and it gives you skills you can take anywhere. Suffocating in traffic on the East Third Ring, with no competency in Chinese beyond “hello,” “thank you,” and the numbers one through ten, I found myself in a screaming match with a cab driver over the best route during rush hour. (You’re going to take Jianguomenwai Dajie?!?)

I still don’t know how a New Yorker answers the question of Beijing, but at last I have learned to pose the question more precisely. To wit: if authoritarian capitalism is the mark of the present, if CCTV is the principal text of the moment, should you or should you not rush in? When does a defense of free presses or voting go from noble to nostalgic, then to hollow? Must you watch Chinese MTV on local television, or can you just stream it in New York, considering that all the songs are in Korean anyway? How should you engage with the world, and where?

In the city he calls Peking, where the air is still so clean and sweet that he wants to “send some to DC,” Nixon spends most of Act III wondering how history is made, singing to himself and to Pat about the burdens of leadership. Today, sitting in New York’s plushest hall, watching a “CNN opera” about forty-year-old events, the desires and worries of an American president seem principally dramatic: real history takes place somewhere else. Nixon in China in 2011 shows that this other history is the medium we are living through, the means of engagement—something nerve-wracking, bewildering, and nursing at its core a bitter, ironic element whose best name is probably fear. Fear of a tougher world, fear of the erosion of democracy’s primacy, fear, I need hardly add, of the economic and ecological future of the 21st century, wherein choking on the thick Beijing air feels almost rewarding.

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