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Opera "Nixon in China" comes to Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, the United States, March 11 (Xinhua) -- Almost 40 years exactly after former U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China, the "week that changed the world" was recreated Saturday night with the premiere of "Nixon in China" by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

The modern American opera, written by composer John Adams and first performed in 1987, chronicles Nixon's 1972 trip to China and meeting with Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. The visit ultimately led to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States.

Given both the historical significance of Nixon's visit and a cast of characters as vivid and famous as Nixon and his wife Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, "Nixon in China" is an opera inherently ripe with drama, and the way the opera is staged truly makes the moment appear larger than life.

The opera is grand in scale from the first time the curtain rises, when a massive reconstruction of the "Spirit of '76" presidential plane takes up the entire stage and serves as a backdrop while Nixon steadily descends to shake Zhou's hand.

Over the course of the next three acts, the characters continue their week in China. Nixon, Mao and Kissinger triumphantly voice their expectations for the U.S.-China relationship in Mao's office, while Nixon's wife visits outside factories and farms to learn more about life in China.

"Nixon in China" is based on a historical event mentioned in every history book, but the artistic medium of opera surpasses the history books in capturing the emotionally-charged nature of Nixon's visit, and expressing it in an over-the-top fashion that gives new relevance to the watershed diplomatic visit.

The first act is a celebratory display of the promising future of the U.S.-China relationship, and concludes with a powerful crescendo of music as Mao and Zhou jubilantly toast, and Nixon dances the twist on top of the banquet table as waiters sing and press snap pictures around him.

Of course, in real life, Nixon's visit featured no such dance break, but the dance reflects Nixon's enthusiasm for the momentous occasion, an enthusiasm that cannot be conveyed by history books.

According to internationally-recognized baritone James Maddalena, who plays Nixon in the production, the very power of "Nixon in China" hinges on the personal insight and emotion of a political figure on a state visit.

"What opera does is give you a heightened look upon any event, because unlike coverage on a network or CNN, there is artistic license and we go inside these people and imagine what was going on in their minds," Maddalena told Xinhua in an interview about his experience with "Nixon in China."

"Particularly, in this production there are many moments where characters sort of step out of the reality of the situation, and we see what it is like for them and their imagination," Maddalena said.

Perhaps due to Maddalena's expertise in playing Nixon, whom Maddalena said he has played over 100 times since the opera debuted in 1987, Nixon comes off in the production as an emotionally complex man thrilled with the potential of his China visit, but unsure how it will ultimately play out in the Cold War world.

Similarly, the second and third acts of the opera reflect the uncertainty of the time and the remaining differences between the United States and China in the 1970s.

The exuberant optimism of the first act still underlies characters' determination to forge a new bilateral relationship, but Nixon and others are also slightly overwhelmed by the long road ahead and wonder if such completely different countries can actually come closer.

The opera ends with a soliloquy by Zhou, who wonders just what exactly was accomplished during Nixon's visit and what the future will bring.

But in some ways, the emotional doubts expressed by the characters are the very strength of "Nixon in China," as now the audience can see just how far the U.S.-China relationship has come.

The grand possibilities contemplated by Nixon and Mao in the first act, such as China participating in the New York Stock Exchange and World Trade Organization, have already come true.

Overall, the audience can grasp the complexity of the situation and the emotions of U.S. and Chinese officials, who wonder if their goal of a close U.S.-China partnership will finally come true, all the while knowing it now to be historical fact.

The overall message of "Nixon in China" thus seems to be one of positivity and optimism, showing just what surprises and achievements the future can bring.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City production of "Nixon in China" will run at the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts until March 18. "Nixon in China" is directed by Michael Cavanaugh, who first staged his version of the opera in Vancouver in March 2010.

"Nixon in China" was also performed by the San Francisco Opera in June 2011.

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