Nixon in China director Michael Cavanagh on diplomacy's greatest opera
SFBG Twenty-five years separate us from the opera's premiere in Houston in 1987 — and yet China remains, to use a slightly loaded term, as inscrutable as ever to many Americans, yet as enmeshed in their daily lives as ever. What relevance do you think the opera may hold today?
MC I think it has an eerie relevance. Even back when Nixon in China premiered, China was still remote and threatening to many, and this was before the reform machine revved into life, before China's emerging economic dominance. In one scene, in Mao's library, Mao goes off quite poetically about the revolution, and how things were changing, and he plays fast and loose with the concepts of capitalism and communism, almost as if he foresees the necessary reforms ahead, that came to pass.
Beyond that, the opera is very prescient about the evolution of the media — this was one of the first major world events to be broadcast on a global scale, to be covered as the kind of spectacle we base much of our opinions and thoughts on today. We think of Nixon as shifty-eyed, but he was really just trying to figure out where the cameras were most of the time, trying to acclimate to this new kind of fishbowl environment in which political figures were treated like movie characters. The opera records the beginnings of all that, and ends with them reviewing their memories of everything that's occurred as if it was all this footage, which it is quite actually on stage.
Basically, though, the deepest relevance a work can have is by connecting to the audience through its characters. Take Pat Nixon. We hurt for Pat Nixon. She's been betrayed. Nixon promised her a simple home life, the comforts of family and a man at home, and here she is traveling all the way to China! She's bewildered, but as First Lady there's really no place for that, so she forges her own, I think very American kind of resolve that cracks a couple times, but still gets her through.
It's a very poignant psychological and emotional study, projected on the world stage, and amplified as only opera can. That's what opera does better than any other art form: it amplifies life.
SFBG You're a Canadian — have you caught any flack for interpreting these events that are so associated with the US?
MC You know, despite appeals to the contrary, our two countries really share the same history. This version of the opera was premiered in Vancouver during the Olympic Festival — it's what Canada chose to represent itself will to the entire world. And when it comes down to it, really, everything you do effects us Canadians just as much. We sleep with the elephant. *
NIXON IN CHINA
June 8-July 3, times and prices vary
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness, SF.
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