Reading Nixon in China

Posted by Vancouver Opera On 2:55 PM
The libretto for Nixon in China, by Alice Goodman, is a work of art in itself. It is literate and poetic, and adds so very much to the total work – more so, I think, than many other “traditional” opera libretti.

American poet Alice Goodman was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and educated at Harvard University and Cambridge, where she studied English and American literature. In addition to Nixon in China, she wrote the libretto for Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer . She was raised as a Reform Jew, and is now an ordained Anglican priest. She married the noted British poet Geoffrey Hill in 1987 and in 2006 took up the post of chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The liner notes for the recently-released CD of the opera state that “…Goodman spent painstaking hours collecting translations of Mao’s poems, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, photographs and literary works. Out of this came an epic libretto imbued with eloquence of thought and feeling, giving voice to each character in a highly individualistic way. Through her beautifully crafted couplets, Goodman has brought a depth of meaning to this historic event, allowing the audience to experience history in a new and more revealing way.”

The website “Everything2” wrote eloquently about Goodman’s libretto:

“The libretto alone speaks a lot of what the opera is about. It is one of those few excellent opera librettos that can be read and studied as a piece of poetry whose clarity and beauty transcend the symbolic language upon which it is based. It is the lyricism of the text that allows the composer to create the lyric and expressive music to pair with it. That the libretto is written in verse contributes to the heroic sound of the work, as well as the sense of careful thought. Too, it refers to the Chinese poetic form, which Mao at first used then later banned. The characters, whether they are making public speeches or talking to themselves, demonstrate a great deal of control over their words, are articulate, earnest, and descriptive; the use of metaphor is generous throughout the text, though allotted more to the Chinese than to the Americans. These are thoughtful, intelligent people, and to a degree, their political contest is made manifest in their dialogue, in which it seems as though they are all trying to outdo one another through wit.”

In the first aria of the opera, Nixon’s “News Has a Kind of Mystery,” the President is well-aware of the global political implications of the trip, and how it is playing with the home audience. The New York Times said “…what dominates the Nixonian psyche in Alice Goodman’s libretto is a consciousness – a sort of split self-consciousness – of history in the making.”

News has a kind of mystery;
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the whole world was listening.

And though we spoke quietly
The eyes and ears of history
Caught every gesture
And every word, transforming us
As we, transfixed
Made history.

The work underscores not just the personal and the private in these bigger-than-life figures — Richard and Pat Nixon, Chou En-lai, Chairman Mao and his wife — but also the “vein of sadness that runs through Alice Goodman's poetic libretto, the sense that life is a dream and that most big events are beyond our control,” according to a writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In her Act II aria “This is Prophetic!” Pat Nixon sings

This is prophetic! I foresee
A time will come when luxury
Dissolves into the atmosphere
Like a perfume, and everywhere
The simple virtues root and branch
And leaf and flower. And on that bench
There we’ll relax and taste the fruit
Of all our actions. Why regret
Life which is so much like a dream?

Finally, a thought about Act III: on the final evening of the trip, the major characters ruminate on the week’s events. A sense of exhaustion and doubt is pervasive. It has become clear that, despite all the public displays, the relationship between China and the United States remains uncertain and irresolute. The six look back over their lives in an interlocking series of reflections and recreations. Finally Chou En-lai remains alone, wondering if Nixon’s epic trip was truly worthwhile. He then looks to the future and resolves to carry on.

I am old and cannot sleep forever like the young
Nor hope that death will be a novelty
But endless wakefulness when I put down my work
And go to bed

How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy
Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.

Just before dawn the birds begin, the warblers who prefer the dark,
The cage-birds answering.

To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
Lies heavy on the morning grass.

~ James W. Wright, General Director

5 Response to "Reading Nixon in China"

  1. Carol Said,

    I just saw the Met simulcast. What a great work of art for our time! Everyone contributed so much, and the collective contributed more than the sum of the individual parts - very appropriate for an opera about the "ideal" of socialism. But what really floored me was the poetry of the libretto. Thank-you very much, Alice.


  2. Bill Stuart nanaimo BC Said,

    I watched this Met opera performance today and first the libretto is probably the finest libretto ever composed for any opera by far.
    The met production was also of a brilliantly high order.


  3. Anonymous Said,

    It is a really beautiful libretto. It also has a lovely sense of humor -- I especially loved the moment when the chorus memorably sings, "Pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig pig!


  4. Anonymous Said,

    Terrific article. How does one obtain a copy of this poetic work?


  5. Anonymous Said,

    I agree.

    I've been listening to this work for years and find Alice's contribution has a lot to do with its lasting appeal. The lyrical way she weaves historic quotes with more subjective material is gripping, personal, and believable. I wish all history was interpreted this tenderly...