'Nixon in China' opera gets Chinese facelift

Dominique Simon
Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung (L) shake hands with Richard Nixon in Beijing on February 22, 1972 during the US President's official visit in China. 'Nixon in China', an opera inspired by the first visit to Beijing by a US president, gets a facelift this month in Paris at the hands of Chinese-born director Cheng Shi-Zheng

'Nixon in China', an opera inspired by the first visit to Beijing by a US president, gets a facelift this month in Paris at the hands of Chinese-born director Cheng Shi-Zheng, who still remembers the 1972 trip as the first time he ever saw the picture of an American.

The new production, on stage at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris to April 18, comes on the 40th anniversary of the politically ground-breaking visit which opened Red China to the West, and on the 25th anniversary of the creation of the opera, written by US composer John Adams.

The English-language opera, which played in Paris in its original version 20 years ago, is seen this time through Chinese rather than American eyes.

"It's my own vision... I didn't want to look at the first production so as not to be influenced" by it, Cheng told AFP.

"I knew I could stage something different with my own interpretation," he added.

Cheng, who now lives in New York, remembers Nixon's visit well.

"My life changed when Nixon came to China and in a way it changed China as well," he said.

Cheng grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a period he describes as "a very violent time" during which, when he was aged four, his mother was killed.

"For years I tried to suppress the memory I didn't want to think about it," he said.

"I grew up between propaganda and art and we used to portray America as an evil. We painted Americans as devils.

"I had never seen Americans in my life until Nixon showed up and I saw his picture," he said.

Aged nine at the time, he remembers "it was very shocking to see Americans are also humans."

"The visit was the beginning; it actually changed the way Chinese people perceived Americans and the way Americans looked at China," he said, adding that the historic handshake and toast between Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung "seemed unreal at the time".

"Suddenly Americans were not enemies any more, suddenly Americans were friends," he added.

To stage the opera, Cheng didn't just look to his own memories. He was forced to explain the period to many of the artists who grew up knowing nothing of this historical event.

Cheng, who works as choreographer, singer, and director was trained in China in traditional opera.

"I went to America in 1987 because I was fascinated by America, American culture as well," he said.

His version of "Nixon in China" differs from the original which was seen as more documentary and tongue-in-cheek.

Kicking off the visit with a mass choreography, he remembers how Chinese leaders "made huge efforts to please, to make an impression on the Americans."

But violence is always just below the surface and, in the opera, chaos eventually breaks out allowing Nixon "to see the real China".

The stage is dominated by a statue of Mao "because he is very much a part today of Chinese life," he said.

But "I don't think any Chinese composer would have written an opera in such a way about Mao ... this is a very sensitive issue I am not sure this is something that the country is ready to talk about," said Cheng who was banned for five years from returning to his home country because of his work.

"When I was young, art was propaganda it was not personal expression, now it's just a commercial adventure," he said.

"I think art has not really yet found a place in China," he added.