Jerry doesn’t want to go to the opera. After almost 4 years of marriage I am coming to terms with things on which we differ. There is so much we agree about, even, these days, politics (at first we had some differences about that). Neither of us likes to watch TV, neither of us is interested in sports, both of us are interested in science and we like to read and learn about it. We discuss a wide range of subjects, we kiss and cuddle, walk together, drink wine together, work on various projects around the house together and he likes my cooking. We are friends and lovers.
But he won’t go to the opera, so if I want to go (and I do) I either have to go alone or find someone to go with.
I bought 2 tickets to Nixon in China – yes, that’s an opera – and my lawyer daughter, Deborah, took me. It was wonderful.
She drove up from where she lives on Whidbey Island and picked me up at the ferry on the mainland side. Then she drove me to Vancouver. We went early so we would have time for any form of frivolity that we might fancy. We went to the Indian neighborhood and browsed the shops. Deborah makes Easter baskets for her whole family so she bought trinkets with an East Indian flavor to put in the baskets. Stuff like spangled pillow covers for her grown up daughter and figurines of Ganeshes and other gods. The store owner told us long stories about Indian gods. Then we went to an Indian grocery store and looked at all the exotic foods and spices. Deborah bought many things to make curries with. I bought pickled green pepper corns and saffron.
Next we drove to our prearranged (by Deborah) downtown hotel. A nice young man whisked the car away, while another nice young man took our bags and other things inside. Our room was on the 10th floor and had a good view of city streets and tall buildings. It was small, but comfortable, with crisp white linens and white-sheet duvet covers that make one feel that everything on the bed was freshly washed. Bathrobes were provided.
I said, “We should have bought a bottle of wine.”
Deborah said, “We’ll go down to the bar and have a drink. I want a martini.”
The bar was elegant; it was decorated in a streamlined Art Deco style – simple and soothing. Deborah chatted and joked with the waiter and the bartender. She had a sugary sweet fruit martini. I had a glass of red wine.
Next we dressed for the opera. Deborah wore black pants and a jacket and top with black and blue spangled paisley figures on it. She glittered. I wore a black wool skirt and a black silk jacket lined with red silk that my ex-husband, Hugh, brought back from a business trip to Hong Kong many years ago. I usually wear that to the opera.
We walked to a fancy French restaurant where Deborah had made reservations. Waiters hovered. I thanked the boy who poured our water, and he murmured, “My pleasure.”
The food was excellent. We both had fresh halibut which has just come in season here in the northwest. We speculated about the opera. I had been told by a friend here on the island that it was “very political”. Deborah had read about it on Wikipedia. She said that there was a well know aria “I am the wife of Chairman Mao.” I had heard an orchestral excerpt, “The Chairman Dances” on the radio, and my friend said the music was modern. But neither Deborah nor I really knew what to expect.
When we were settled in our seats in the renovated Queen Elizabeth Theater (in the balcony, but still $80 a ticket), I looked through opera glasses at the curtain covering the stage, which I had mistakenly thought had a repeat floral design; the flowers were faces of Chinese people. As the house darkened and the orchestra began to play the faces faded from the curtain and clouds appeared, then through the clouds the plane Air Force One materialized. As the overture ended the plane landed and a chorus which could be seen in silouette behind the translucent curtain began to sing hauntingly.
The sets were stark and simple, but made to look magical with elaborate lighting effects and splashes of red.
There were 6 main characters wonderfully portrayed. Nixon, shallow, paranoid, speaking in clichés and slogans; Pat Nixon, simple, childlike and naïve, sometimes puzzled, sometimes horrified by what she saw, Kissenger, lustful and devious, Chairman Mao, old, crusty, repeating revolutionary dogma and living in the past, Madam Mao, angry, defiant and afraid, and finally, Chou En-lai the philosopher, the thinker, questioning the value of the revolution.
There was a spectacular ballet sequence in the second act in which a young girl, dressed in brilliant red, is whipped for being insufficiently revolutionary. The other characters watch as if in a theater. Pat cries, “Stop them! Stop them!” Nixon says, “It’s just a play, dear, you’ll see, she will get up in the end.”
The people sitting next to us left after the second act. We spent the intermissions (there were 2) waiting in line for the toilets (no line for the men’s room) and commenting on the way people dress at the opera. They wear everything from the most outré evening dress to hiking clothes.
The music is modern, with elements of big band music that came from about the time of Nixon’s visit to China. Nixon dances with Pat, and after a bit Madam Mao grabs the Chairman’s hand and says, “Come on, we’ll show these mother fuckers how to dance.” Then all four do a sort of jitter bug.
There were no pretty arias, and it must have been extremely difficult to sing. I found the music interesting, and it certainly matched the subject matter and themes.
The libretto was poetry, sprinkled with revolutionary slogans from the Chinese, and patriotic slogans from Nixon. It was written by a poet, Alice Goodman, and I think is a masterpiece. The language is simple and yet the ideas are complex. It has the essence of revolutionary thought, of the Chinese past, of American culture and of the fears and hopes of everyman.
I thought it was great art and great theater. I loved it.
We walked back to the hotel in a light rain.
The next day Deborah went to church and I went to a book store. I bought a book for Jerry, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson.
At the border driving home we ran out of gas. After a lot of consultation and long inspection of our passports the heavily armed border guards permitted us to walk to a nearby gas station with a can for gas.
I was a bit late coming home, and tired. But it was worth it.
I’d do it again in a revolutionary minute.