Friday 7 September 2012

Nixon in China: Alice Goodman’s libretto

One big cultural regret of the year so far: I didn’t go to The Death of Klinghoffer when it was on at the ENO earlier this year.  Or to Nixon in China, Wednesday’s prom.  Both operas are by John Adams with the libretto by Alice Goodman.  I did listen to the prom.  What an extraordinarily rich and intense experience.  I’ve never heard anything like it.  The music is dramatic and highly emotional, but with an thread of Philip Glass-like minimalism running through it.  The themes include politics, ideologies, history, religion, gender, memory.   

1972: Nixon visits China.  The staginess of opera (this one was written in the mid-80’s) fits perfectly with the staginess of a week-long US/Chinese summit: the stiffness of set-piece meetings and the awkward informality of bilateral friendly chats, interwoven with characters’ thoughts and memories.  The libretto ranges through satire, bathos, lyricism and philosophising; the tone is always very assured.  It is mostly written in half-rhyming couplets – not at all the same as fully rhyming couplets – half-rhymes flow more easily, and the changing vowels can produce a rise or fall at the end of each line. 

Dialogue is sometimes stilted and full of banalities, especially from the Americans; at other times (less realistically) it’s quick, witty and thought-provoking:

We’ve more than once led the right wing
Forward while textbook cadres swung
Back into goosestep, home at last.
How your most rigid theorist
Revises as he goes along!

Now you’re referring to Wang Ming,
Chiang, Chang Kuo-tao and Li Li-san.

I spoke generally. The line
We take now is a paradox.
Among the followers of Marx
The extreme left, the doctrinaire,
Tend to be fascist.

And the far Right?

True Marxism is called that by
The extreme left. Occasionally
The true left calls a spade a spade
And tells the left it’s right.

A Chinese morality play about oppression is staged, where the boundaries between actors and their audience of politicians turn out to be porous… Kissinger doubles as the evil landlord.  Nixon, pre-Watergate, is portrayed more as archetypal US president than Tricky Dick.  As with other plays within plays, things go awry; then Mme Mao reasserts control:

Chiang Ch’ing
I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung
Who raised the weak above the strong
When I appear the people hang
Upon my words, and for his sake
Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck
I speak according to the book.
When did the Chinese people last
Expose its daughters? At the breast
Of history I sucked and pissed,
Thoughtless and heartless, red and blind,
I cut my teeth upon the land
And when I walked my feet were bound
On revolution. Let me be
A grain of sand in heaven’s eye
And I shall taste eternal joy.

The triple rhymes and many monosyllabic words bring out the character’s  relentlessness.  I especially like the subversion of the cliché of sucking at history’s breast, the punning line breaks at ‘hang’ and ‘bound’, and the second last line.  This is an example of how the libretto stands on its own, without the music; the two together are intensely dramatic at this point.   

The last act moves into dreamland, with the main actors all in their beds on stage.  The Nixon couple carry on one conversation and Mao, Chiang Ch’ing and Chou En-lai another, about the second world war and their revolutionary youth, respectively.  At times they move into something more like soliloquy:

I have no offspring. In my dreams
The peasants with their hundred names,
Unnamed children and nameless wives
Deaden my footsteps like dead leaves;
No one I killed, but those I saw
Starved to death.

There are traces of Shakespeare, especially in the epilogue-like end speech by Chou with its note of parting regret.  The crucial question in the middle, and the next line and a half reflecting on it, are perfectly placed.
I am old and I cannot sleep
Forever, like the young, nor hope
That death will be a novelty
But endless wakefulness when I
Put down my work and go to bed.
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond
Our remedy. Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.
Just before dawn the birds begin,
The warblers who prefer the dark,
The cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
Lies heavy on the morning grass.

See Prospero ending The Tempest:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own…

Do the Chinese get the best lines?  I’ve quoted mostly from their speeches.  Nixon and Pat Nixon get some good ones too.  But it’s the Chinese characters whose actions shook the world. 

You can read the libretto here, along with programme notes for the prom (still online at time of writing).  I wanted to know about the author, and was most put out to find there was no information at all on Goodman in the programme.  Is this music-programme convention, where the words only matter in so far as they go with the music?  Or blatant BBC sexism: would a male poet/librettist have been so ignored?  Is there some deeply held assumption that a female librettist is to the composer as a secretary is to the boss, a muse to the artist and a nurse to the doctor, or am I being paranoid? 

Anyway the composer, John Adams, says: “To my mind Alice Goodman’s poem is to me one of the great as-yet-unrecognized works of American theater.”  Oh, and I’ve just discovered that he brought her on stage at the end of the prom. 

You can read an interview here, in which Goodman talks about how the furore surrounding The Death of Klinghoffer, more than 20 years ago, stopped her writing.  (It’s hard to imagine any other international dispute having such a corrosive effect on creativity.)


Tomorrow, Saturday, it’s the Free Verse poetry book fair in Islington; twice as big as last year’s.  Where else can one browse pamphlets, or find 50 poetry publishers in one room?  

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