Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Move According to the Book

“Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
Body language is more than just a movement of a joint, more than mass moving through air. When subtle, gestures can mean the difference between comfort and anxiety, between pleasantness and joy, or between friends and enemies. The raise of an eyebrow can change the whole climate of a conversation. Body language is something born from society; it’s different in each country, and a certain gesticulation can be offensive in some social circles and complimentary in others. On the other hand, it’s a universal language in some cases. A handshake can represent a curve in history.

The handshake felt around the world
Nixon in China, the political opera by John Adams, 24 years after its premier has finally occupied the stage of The Metropolitan Opera in the past week. Largely anticipated, the opera is can be easily named one of the most influential and groundbreaking operas of the 20th century. Its political nature is raw without being kitsch—something that took two full years of composing and staging to achieve. It would have been easy to let the opera fall into the deep pit of frivolous pop culture, but John Adams, the librettist Alice Goodman, and the stage director Peter Sellars carefully stepped over it and made a symbolic and thought-provoking masterpiece.  

Peter Sellars and John Adams (Francois Mori) 
Today I sat in a dark theater as the filmed version of the opera was broadcast live to my city. After watching the movie “Carlos” yesterday, the five-and-a-half hour portrait of the Venezuelan terrorist, I wasn’t sure how I would fare sitting in another theater for four hours. But that all melted away as soon as Adams walked out into the pit. That action made me shiver, not unlike the effect Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (the second movement especially) gives me. Nixon in China is an opera dependant on the three main creators, Adams, Goodman, and Peter Sellars, the stage director, and the six main characters, Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, Chairman Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger. Of course the music, with specific cultural touches for each character, drives the opera, and the libretto’s poetic couplets are unexpected yet stunning. But an even more delicate aspect to the opera is the subtle gestures in all of these components. They’re sometimes barely seen, but when noticed they’ll make you raise your own eyebrows just a little.

Janis Kelly and James Maddalena 
The first subtle gesture in the opera isn't actually physical, but musical. Nixon in China begins with a bold rising of the curtain to a stage full of people dressed in typical 60s wear of Chinese citizens. They have resilient but somewhat defeated expressions for minutes on end as the strings climb their way up the A natural minor scale before the chorus begins to sing the Red Army’s “The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention,” and then the line “The people are the heroes now, Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.” This scale is minor, so one would expect it to be more sinister than its major sibling, but this scale has no accidentals (in a sense) and is suspenseful without being upfront about its balefulness. Natural minor scales are incredibly foreshadowing, for they don’t conform to the harmonic minor scales that reach our ears’ tonal expectations. This first gesture puts Nixon in China exactly where Adams, Goodman, and Sellars wanted it—digging beneath the media’s mask of politics to the, well, natural elements.

Photograph of President and Mrs. Richard Nixon Touring the Great Wall of China
...Nixons in China
During Richard’s “News” aria, before the first line (“Your flight was smooth, I hope”) one of the most meaningful gestures in recent history presents itself. When the Nixons finally step on Chinese soil off Air Force One, Chou En-lai presents his hand to Richard, a Western custom that he seems to have rehearsed. Their handshake lasts for about 10 straight seconds, much longer than an average, comfortable one. The whole stage freezes as the handshake is in-action, and a single triangle note from the orchestra detaches the two. After, Richard brings the aria full swing with (along with many other handshakes):

“When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
on this bare field outside Peking
just now, the world was listening.
Though we spoke quietly
the eyes and ears of history
caught every gesture
and every word, transforming us
as we, transfixed, made history.
Our shaking hands
were shaping time. Each moment stands
out sharp and clear.

The handshake not only symbolizes the temporary stall of political strife but the beginning of a new era.
Another significant gesture is during the banquet scene, held in the Great Hall of the People. As Chou En-lai toasts to America and their values, the seemingly hundreds of people on stage gradually begin to simultaneously toast to the Nixons and the American/Chinese kindling friendship. A few scenes before, when Nixon, Mao, En-lai, and Kissinger were all discussing politics (or in Mao’s case, philosophy), they all come to one of the few universally understood statements, that they all side with the right side of politics. “Right” in this case is used in both meanings of the word, meaning conservative and (in their minds) correct. During the banquet scene, everyone turns to the audience while singing “Gam bei,” Chinese for “cheers.” The whole cast is holding their little glass in their right hand—except for Chou En-lai, who holds it in his left.  Personally, I’ve had a hard time deciphering this gesture, but it definitely seems significant especially after the second scene. The audience gets a sense that Chou En-lai is the wisest of the main characters, with more insight than his boss and comrades. Chou En-lai, however, also is foreshadowed to die soon after the opera ends (of pancreatic cancer that was never treated). Perhaps En-lai is able to see both sides of everything and is the only one with an outlook on things other than politics. He is the only one to ask in the last scene (I Am Old and I Cannot Sleep), “How much of what we did was good?”

Of course there are thousands of other miniscule gestures in Adams, Goodman, and Sellar’s opera Nixon in China that I am not going to write about in detail. Chiang Ch’ing’s “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung” aria is terrifying in a sense and enlightens the “brainwashed” effect everyone seemed to have. The placement of Pat Nixon’s aria “This is Prophetic!” sung immediately before Chiang Ch’ing’s ballet performance (“The Red Detachment of Women”) shows the extreme differences between American and Communist values. The two women could not seem more different (and they are very different), but their positions are identical. Pat is dependent on Richard. Richard’s power is what gives her meaning; she grew up in a poor family and rose to fame and fortune. Her support of Richard’s occupation is what defines her. Chiang Ch’ing is the unseen body of the Cultural Revolution of the time. Her brain is a product of Mao and Communism, but she in turn is the arms and legs of Mao (who no longer has use of his limbs). She was a movie actress before she met Mao, and politics is what makes her, her. Chiang Ch’ing’s most famous line, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” is as true as it gets—that is the exact, and the only, thing she is.

A gesture, whether musical or physical, can make an opera. No matter if the person in row Z can see it; it still bends the path towards the ultimate goal of the work. John Adams, Alice Goodman, and Peter Sellar’s opera Nixon in China has a plethora of these subtle yet powerful gestures, but so do many other productions. Just keep your eyes open. It has a kind of mystery.

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