Former U.S. President Carter and Henry Kissinger Cement Nixon’s Operatic China Ties

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Former President Jimmy Carter meeting with President Hu Jintao on January 12 / Agencies

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on January 12 / Agencies

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Jan. 16 – In a little heralded diplomatic event this week, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and statesman Henry Kissinger met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic ties. The United States did not formally recognize the Peoples Republic of China until January 1979, prior to that Taiwan was the United States’ preferred China partner.

The recognition had been preceded by then-President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, where with Kissinger shuttling between the scenes, he met Chairman Mao Zedong and laid the path for future full diplomacy. As noted somewhat glibly in Tom Hanks’ “Forrest Gump,” the so-called ping pong diplomacy began with U.S. and Chinese table tennis teams doing battle.

While Carter, Kissinger, Hu and Wen got down to some mutual back slapping and mutual reminisces, the events of 1972 lead to one of the strangest – yet most successful Operatic works in modern times – the John Adams opera, “Nixon in China.”

Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the opera premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, on October 22, 1987. It focuses on the six key players, President Nixon and his wife Pat, Chairman Mao and his last wife, Jiang Qing, and the two key advisors on either side – Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai.

The opera requires interesting staging – the Nixon’s aircraft in act one is usually a full size replica – and follows the initial greetings on either side, and then through the tours (including one to a pig farm) that the U.S. side made in rural China. Political commentary, including one famous aria “The People are the Heroes Now,” and a pseudo performance of a Chinese propaganda play are enacted, in which all the characters perform a foxtrot, bemused by their situation, the apparent strangeness of their circumstances and an sense of wonderment at what the visit will ultimately bring. That of course is now well known; the establishment of full diplomatic ties and eventual massive bilateral trade.

Today the opera is regarded as a modern classic and one of America’s great recordings. To acknowledge the 30 years of diplomacy between the two countries that was sealed earlier this week with friendly handshakes between Carter, Kissinger, Hu and Wen, we bring you two excerpts from the opera.

The Chairman Dances

The People are the Heroes Now