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Nixon goes to China; Jaeger goes to the Opera

Started: 2011-04-06 07:58:30

Submitted: 2011-04-06 08:55:33

Visibility: World-readable

Five years ago, while playing Civilization IV, when my civilizations reached the modern era, I heard a fascinating song on the soundtrack that I eventually tracked down to the opening aria, in English, of the 1987 opera Nixon in China. I filed this away for future reference and mostly forgot about it for the better part of five years, when I started to read up on China. On a whim one night in the middle of February I searched for the opera and learned that it was being produced at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and that the coming weekend matinee would be broadcast, live, to movie theaters around the world. The Saturday morning matinee (13:00 EST; 11:00 MST) wasn't especially convenient, but the same performance would be rebroadcast on a weekday evening in early March. I talked Kiesa into joining me (promoting it as a 'cultural experience') and set out to do as much background research as I could so I'd have some vague idea what was going on.

Kiesa arranged a babysitter and we rendezvoused on a Wednesday evening in early March at Boulder's one surviving multiplex. I wasn't quite sure what to expect; we arrived a few minutes after the broadcast started but while the broadcast's host was explaining the opera and its production. I found the theater comfortably full with people older than my parents, whom I presume must be the key opera demographic. I was almost certainly the youngest person there, though Kiesa thinks one of the other members of the audience could have been younger than me. The opera started with the opening aria ("The people are the heros now / behemoths pull the peasant's plow"), then dropped a giant 707 prop onto the stage through which Richard Nixon emerged. I knew the greeting handshake between President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was especially important for Zhou (who was still bitter from having been snubbed by Secretary of State Dulles twenty years earlier), and the opera made it sufficiently clear that Kiesa had no trouble figuring it out. The first two acts of the opera proceeded with a rough approximation of historical events; I especially enjoyed the chorus members dressed as PLA soldiers whisking scene changes on and off the stage in Pat Nixon's tour of the countryside in a manner that suggested both efficient stage management and also carefully-choreographed political management of the original tour.

During the intermissions between the three acts, the host talked to the key cast members as well as composer Peter Adams, who was conducting this performance. He also talked to Winston Lord, who (as a member of Kissinger's National Security Council staff) had visited China as part of the American delegation, and later served as ambassador to China. (On Kissinger's first secret visit to China the prior year, Lord situated himself at the front of the airplane so he would be the first American official to enter Communist Chinese airspace.) He was in the room when Nixon met Mao but was cropped out of the official pictures (and had been omitted from the opera as well).

I enjoyed the opera, especially for the window into history. It helped that the libretto was in English; I usually found the subtitles helpful (especially as multiple actors sang on top of each other) but Kiesa found them distracting. I feel culturally enlightened for having attended an opera.

Despite trying to shift my attention eastward from India to China, I keep finding connections to drag me back to South Asia (which might not be especially surprising, since China shares a substantial land border with most mainland South Asian nations along the crest of the Himalayas). I knew about China and India's brief border war in 1962, which I need to study in greater detail (in graduate school, Willy is studying the American military aid to India that followed the war) but I didn't know that Nixon's back channel to China went through Pakistan -- and that Nixon's support for Pakistani strongman Yahya Kahn and his suppression of the democratically-elected parliamentary majority in East Pakistan (including sending the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal as the conflict between India and Pakistan heated up) was Nixon defending his channel to China. The footnotes in Nixon and Mao led me to the awkwardly-named From a Head, Through a Head, To a Head, which describes in some detail the diplomatic back channel through Pakistan that Nixon used to establish communications with China. My quest to find the book led me to Colorado State University's Morgan Library, where I discovered that, as a Colorado resident, I can get borrowing privileges simply by showing up and asking nicely. (One used to be able to do the same at the University of Colorado's Norlin Library, but CU now charges for the privilege. I may still pay to get access to their collection but I want to exploit my other channels first.) I don't usually have any reason to visit Fort Collins, but I made a special trip two weeks ago to pick up a couple of books and simply bask in the trove of knowledge represented by the library. As I browsed the shelves around E183.8 and DS754 I realized there were more books there than I could ever read in my lifetime, which was at once invigorating and depressing.