Nixon in China: 'It was a radical and extraordinary idea to make a documentary opera'

Nixon in China: 'It was a radical and extraordinary idea to make a documentary opera'

credit: Camilla Winther

As Scottish Opera's new co-production hits the stage, we speak to director John Fulljames about how this story fits snugly with 21st century politics

In a global world where even the smallest movements of politicians and celebrities can be instantly splattered across billions of electronic devices, it's hard to believe that major news events used to reach us only through TV, radio and printed newspapers. In 1972, it was headlines all round for US president Richard Nixon, arriving in Beijing to meet with Mao Tse-tung, chairman of the Communist Party of China.

Although the visit shifted to the annals of history, it sparked the imagination of theatre director Peter Sellars. How better to give the story a makeover than turn it into grand opera? With poet Alice Goodman, Sellars approached composer John Adams and, after two years completing the score, Nixon in China was premiered in Houston, Texas in 1987. Now, its first Scottish Opera staging – strongly cast with American baritone Eric Greene as Nixon and Mark Le Brocq as Mao – is a new co-production with The Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid.

Changing perspectives of time, history and media run through director John Fulljames' approach. 'It's really difficult to put the mind back to 1987 when the events of the piece were already 15 years old, even though it was a major TV event, second only in coverage to the moon landing,' he says. 'Sellars, Adams and Goodman were young artists, sort of messing around, and it was a radical and extraordinary idea to make a documentary opera.'

In the early 70s, Nixon and Mao could construct their own narratives, define their legacy and tell us how they, as superpowers, were opening up diplomatic relations between the USA and China. 'But when the piece was written, it was the start of the age of zeitgeist media politics,' says Fulljames. 'The production speaks to the 21st century, not the 1980s, and how politics now is almost as much about communications and media as about policy and context.'

The opera also explores the humanity of its main players. 'One of the strangest things is that the most powerful people in the world become utterly powerless in the face of history, facing, like we all do, death and oblivion,' says Fulljames. 'They become human beings trying to do the best they can and failing, so we empathise with them, something that is particularly important today in our polarised political age. Nixon, who was a figure of fun, is taken seriously and we see him become a Verdian hero.'

The production is contemporary, no longer a documentary opera, but a history opera, complete with film footage and what Fulljames describes as 'wonderfully enjoyable music with a showstopping aria for Madame Mao'. It's set in an archive, in a northern European world peace research institute, where the audience sees Nixon's diaries, Kissinger's letters and Mao's armchair. 'One of the lines in the libretto is "history is our mother", which sort of sums up our approach to what it's all about,' notes Fulljames. 'Although when I went to see John Adams, his advice was "make sure you get the humour right".'

Nixon in China, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tue 18, Thu 20, Sat 22 Feb; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Thu 27, Sat 29 Feb.

Scottish Opera: Nixon in China

John Adams' classic opera about Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972.