Nixon in China Redux

By David A. Andelman

On Monday, at the final dress rehearsal of John Adams’ remarkable opera, Nixon in China, the best performance did not take place on the main stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. It took place in the corridor behind the parterre boxes.  The Met's general director, Peter Gelb, had assembled as many surviving members as he and his staff could find who were along on The Trip, as President Nixon's 1972 visit to China has come to be know.   (Gelb's father, Arthur Gelb, was the metropolitan editor of the New York Times at the time.)

As John Adams makes clear in his monumental opera, there have been few other trips quite so historic in modern history. And probably even fewer such reunions. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor — whose secret diplomacy engineered the encounter between Nixon and Mao Tse-Tung — didn’t make it to the reunion.  But Kissinger's top China aide did. Winston Lord held court, pointing out that he sat in on five meetings between the principals. According to Lord, Mao did indeed talk largely in the kind of homilies sung in the opera by tenor Robert Brubaker, who portrays the Chinese leader:  

MAO:  Founders come first, then profiteers.

NIXON: Capitalists?

MAO: Fishers of men. An organized oblivion.

Statements like that were difficult to digest for American diplomats, not to mention the journalists who accompanied them to that historic session in 1972.

And not surprisingly, there were lots of journalists at The Trip redux—many of the great names of the past and present. Among them were a pair of correspondents later went on to much bigger things—Dan Rather, then White House correspondent and later, of course, anchor of the CBS Evening News, and Max Frankel, then Washington bureau chief of the Times, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his stories on The Trip and later wound up running the paper as executive editor. Frankel brought along his wife, Joyce Purnick, the paper’s metropolitan editor some years after Arthur Gelb.  

Also on hand was Bernard Kalb, who was Rather's colleague at CBS News.  Those were the profligate days when a network might actually send multiple correspondents along on a major trip like that. Indeed, CBS sent three: the late, venerable commentator Erick Sevareid rounded out the network's contingent.  Even Helen Thomas made it up for the reunion: she's now 90 years old, but in 1972 she was the crack UPI White House correspondent. Av Westin, who’d spent 20 years at CBS News before going on to a quarter century at ABC, came along on Monday, the sole ABC alum. After the performance, he reeled off the whole ABC contingent that he’d honchoed—anchor Harry Reasoner, correspondents Howard Tuckner, Tom Jarrell and Ted Koppel.

“Everyone would have sent a lot more, but there was an agreement with the White House—just so many people and cameras,” Westin observed.

On Monday, there were probably as many views of the verisimilitude of the opera as there were recollections, 39 years later, of the meeting itself. “It’s a cartoon,” shrugged Seymour Topping. If anyone should know, it was Topping. Though he and his photo-journalist wife, Audrey Ronning Topping, stood up for the alumni photo of The Trip, he gamely admitted he wasn’t on that voyage. He’d gone the year before, seeing both Mao and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. At the time, Topping, now chairman of the editorial board of World Policy Journal, was assistant managing editor of the Times and deeply involved in the editing of the material that would become known as The Pentagon Papers, when he received a remarkable cable from his wife.

As Topping recounts in his memoir, On the Front Lines of the Cold War, Audrey had been traveling in China for 17 days with her father, Chester Ronning, the veteran Canadian ambassador to Beijing who was himself born in China, the son of Canadian Lutheran missionaries. The cable read: “Zhou Enlai says you can come to China.”  Mind you, until that point, in May 1971, not a single mainstream American journalist had been to China—then all but closed to Americans. But Audrey and her father had been visiting the ambassador’s birthplace in Hubei Province. In the Great Hall of the Peoples, Audrey asked Zhou, sung in the opera by the lush baritone Russell Braun, if he might welcome her husband and James Reston, the great Times columnist. He said he would give visas to both. Topping went first, Reston was to follow later. As Audrey and her husband were en route out of the country, they ran into another American journalist on his way in—Robert Keatley of the Wall Street Journal, another “alumnus” on the parterre on Monday afternoon.

Much of the opera, of course, is poetic license. Still, when composer John Adams, who was on the podium at the Met conducting his work, and director Peter Sellars first conceived of this collaboration in 1983, their aim was to produce a work that would in some fashion paint a turning point in Sino-American history as a defining moment in the spirit of both nations. Certainly, Nixon and his wife Pat did not jump on the stage of the Chinese opera in February 1972 to help a heroic young ballerina being at least theatrically abused by thuggish capitalists and, it would appear, even a member of the Red Guards. Yet tenor James Maddalena, who sang the role of Richard Nixon in the opera’s debut performance in Houston in 1987 and is back again, points out as he greets Zhou Enlai on the tarmac at Beijing airport: “Though we spoke quietly, the eyes and ears of history caught every word.”

Indeed, before the curtain went up on Monday, Peter Gelb took the stage and observed that we were about to witness a unique moment in opera history. And, he conceded, it had been too long coming to the Met’s stage. From its first performance at the Houston Grand Opera, 34 years have passed. Now, Wednesday night, New York heard Nixon in China. The reception was monumental. Even before he lifted his baton, John Adams was received with a standing ovation and cheers from a packed house. Not surprisingly, the reviews were euphoric. As Anthony Tommasini points out in Friday’s New York Times, “The opera and the production may have to come to the Met at just the right time to comprehend the continuing resonances of this audacious and moving opera.”

[Above: "Alumni" of Nixon's trip to China: First row (l to r) Johanna Hecht, Lester Crystal; Second row: Jan Berris, Toby Crystal, Phyllis Kalb, Seymour Topping, Audrey Topping, Ray Sokolov, Marilyn Berger, Mel Elfin; Third row: Michelle Cohen, Helen Thomas, Mia Warren Johnson, Anne Walker, Catherine Keatley, Leona P. Schecter, Anne Solomon; Fourth row: James Kilbride, Ray Zook, Dan Rather, Gerald L. Warren, Ronald Walker, Robert Keatley, Jerrold Schecter, Richard Solomon; Fifth row: Max Frankel (between Gerald L. Warren and Ronald Walker), Joyce Purnick (between Ronald Walker and Robert Keatley), Dwight L. Chapin (between Robert Keatley and Jerrold Schecter); Back row: Stephen Orlins, Ellen Rossen, Av Westin, Bernard Kalb, Richard Dudman, Helen Sloane Dudman, Winston Lord, J. Stapleton Roy, Nicholas Platt] 

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