Monday, June 22, 2009

News has a Kind of Cynically Calculated Propaganda Value

I'll hopefully have more to say about Rick Perlstein's fine social / political history of the sixties and early seventies, Nixonland, once I finish reading it. If for no other reason than that I've been reading a lot this year and not really putting any of my reactions to what I'm reading into words, which feels lazy and unproductive. But I've just gotten through the couple of pages that touch on Nixon's 1972 visit to China, which had me all enthused when I realized that topic was about to be mentioned -- "Hey! Nixon in China! I like that opera!"

One of the big thematic elements of John Adams' opera Nixon in China, as seems typical for Adams' dramatic projects, is personal experience -- wonderment, disorientation, nostalgia -- getting caught up in the present-tense sweep of history being made. Nixon is presented as a sentimental character, and though he's not presented without ambiguity, I'm struck by the difference between the rhapsodic first-act introduction that Adams and librettist Alice Goodman give to Nixon the character as he begins his visit and Perlstein's (not editorially neutral) description of the same scene:

On February 17th, after a departure ceremony that earned him a standing ovation from even confirmed political enemies, Marine One ferried the president to Andrews Air Force Base, where he boarded the presidential 727, renamed for the occasion with a subtle reelection message: Spirit of '76. He took three days in Guam to acclimate himself to Peking time, then landed in China at 11:30 a.m. local time -- 9:30 p.m. eastern standard time, his favorite hour for televised speeches. On the flight to Peking, he called in Haldeman to go over the choreography for his egress from the plane one last time -- "the key picture of the whole trip." A general's sensitivity to commanding time and space, a theater director's obsession with the pageantry: he wouldn't allow anything but perfection for the most important entrance in his life. Another detail of timing he chose February 17th to drop the largest one-day tonnage on South Vietnam since June of 1968, to send a message that whatever his gestures toward peace, he was still a man to be feared.

Apparently all of this happened while Nixon's White House was relentlessly dirty-tricking Ed Muskie's Democratic primary campaign. (And I suppose it could be noted as well that Chairman Mao, a somewhat more ambiguous though generally philosophical character in the opera, directly brought about the deaths of tens of millions of people.)

None of this should be taken to suggest that I won't be pilgrimaging to New York for the Met's production of Nixon during its 2010-11 season. But it does knock me out of harmonizing emotionally with that first scene of the opera, at least for the moment -- it seems to weaken the opera that much of that mystery of news that Adams and Goodman have Nixon singing about was crafted by the president and his aides for political effect. Throughout the opera its authors rather brazenly humanize, maybe whitewash, its subjects and I don't have an issue with that approach, but this cuts closer to the opera's grounding theme.

This would be the second nonfiction book I've read this year that, although it wasn't a reason for my reading the book, covers the subject matter of a John Adams opera. The first would be Richard Rhodes' titanic "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", which I picked up based on Jack's very favorable mention in the august pages of this very blog. It didn't deflate my feelings about the goings-on in Adams' Doctor Atomic, although the description of the bureaucratic groupthink and budgetary self-justification that locked in the plan to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- to say nothing of the description of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and its aftermath, in which Rhodes seems to finally let loose the full moral weight of twentieth-century history -- left me feeling that Doctor Atomic's focus on the weird exaltation of being on the cusp of discovery and history, while more than usually profound in operatic terms, is too small in the face of the subject matter. I suppose I could go for the trifecta (disregarding for the moment Adams' more recent and not-concerned-with-twentieth-century-political-history A Flowering Tree, which I haven't seen or heard) and read something factual about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, although I doubt I have enough regard for Alice Goodman's frequently abstract, too often impenetrable Death of Klinghoffer libretto to have a similar experience.


Blogger Jack said...

Definitely interesting.

Opera-wise, Adams/Goodman/Sellars certainly knew the spin they were putting on Nixon, although you could argue how much that inheres to the opera itself. I wouldn't call it "whitewashing" -- the unstated disconnect between wide-eyed, earnest Opera Nixon and real-life Actual Nixon is supposed to be present. It's partially a kind of thematic joking, I think; there's a wry pranksterish feeling there that goes particularly well with Adams's music, which is part 50s-pop-inflected happy harmony and part contemporary minimalist aloofness.

Doctor Atomic, in comparison, tries much harder to accomplish a more straightforward, morally serious tone. It's a harder thematic target to reach, and it also prevents the libretto from folding in the elisions and shorthand characterizations and fictionalized bits as gracefully as Nixon in China's does.

6/23/2009 8:40 AM  
Blogger nate said...

I do remember reading a quip from Adams (in the liner notes to a library CD of the opera, probably; my used copy of the Nonesuch recording came without the booklet) that Nixon is an opera for communists and Republicans, or words to that effect. I do get that the opera's creators aren't trying to represent history -- I think their "thematic joking" for the most part lives outside of the opera itself, though, and if you're not familiar with (particularly) Adams' and Sellars' artistic personalities then you don't get that outermost layer unless you assume that there's no way the artists could have taken these characters and events at face value.

Maybe for me it's easy to feel the irony in the material where the historical context is already familiar to me -- for instance, I don't believe the opera is really suggesting that Nixon was really this earnest and rapturous individual, since I've been basically aware for a while that Nixon was a paranoid and politically unprincipled man -- but I don't see the implied irony in places where the context is less obvious, or at least hasn't previously occurred to me.

6/23/2009 10:49 AM  

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