Letter from Thessaloniki

«Your flight was smooth, I hope?» «Oh yes.» It is 1972, just four months before the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex. The scene here is at the Beijing airport. The presidential plane Air Force 1 has just landed. The president of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, his wife Pat and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are met by Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai and other Chinese officials. This is Act 1, Scene 1 of «Nixon in China» (1985-87), an opera by the American composer John Adams that depicts Richard Nixon as still a hero, making his groundbreaking visit to China. The libretto is by Alice Goodman. It is said that the inspiration for this opera came largely from Kissinger’s memoirs. According to Kissinger’s account, for Nixon, the extension of a hand to Chou on the runway of the Beijing airport on that cold winter morning in 1972 represented all that Nixon had learned about peace and brotherhood during his Quaker upbringing.   Henry Kissinger («Premier, please, where’s the toilet?») is one of the the six key players in this three-act opera. The others are Nixon («Who, who, who, who are our enemies? Who, who, who, who are our friends?»), his wife Pat («Have you forgotten Washington?»), Chairman Mao («We no longer need Confucius. Let him rot.») and his wife Chiang Ching («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 Chou (»How much of what we did was good?»). The trip to China took place only months before Henry Kissinger made his, historically contested, famous anti-Greek utterance – something the Greeks have not forgotten and also something the former secretary of state has denied ever saying.  That alleged speech consisted of the following: «The Greek people are anarchic and difficult to tame. For this reason, we must strike deep into their cultural roots: Perhaps then we can force them to conform. I mean, of course, to strike at their language, their religion, their cultural and historical reserves, so that we can neutralize their ability to develop, to distinguish themselves or to prevail; thereby removing them as an obstacle to our strategically vital plans in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.» This «Kissinger statement,» which is still in broad circulation in this country and is often used as evidence of an ostensible global conspiracy against Hellenism, has been once more recently interwoven into excited reports on Greek TV concerning schoolbooks «which are dictated by anti-Greek centers in Washington.»  But back to «Nixon in China.» What is justly considered one of the major operas of the 20th century is going to be produced by the Greek National Opera in Athens later this month (on April 20, 22, 25 and 28). It will be directed by Peter Sellars, who also directed its first production in October 1987 in Houston, Texas. It was Sellars, still considered one of the brightest stars among contemporary theatrical directors, who first came up with the idea of basing an opera on former president Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972. John Adam’s minimalist score will be heard at the spacious Alexandra Trianti Hall in the Athens Concert Hall, next to the US Embassy. Not everybody was enchanted when this modern opera was first performed in Texas. Music critic Donald Henahan wrote in the New York Times (October 24, 1987): «That was it? That was ‘Nixon in China’? Finally, on Thursday evening, we had the world premiere of the most heavily publicized and shrewdly promoted new operas of this decade. Though grandly proportioned, the Houston Grand Opera production turned out to be a Peter Sellars variety show, worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory.» But there were positive reviews as well. A reviewer of the Minnesota Opera production, Julie DuRose wrote: «John Adams and the Minnesota Opera have converted me to modern opera – and even to minimalism. Upon first hearing the title ‘Nixon in China,’ you may be prone to a snicker or a good roll of the eyes. But don’t be too hasty. Here, Adams takes his cue from Mozart, Puccini and especially from Verdi and hones in on political drama.» Anything but heavy satire, «Nixon in China» is very grownup stuff. It remains to be seen how Greek opera lovers will receive it.

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