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Propaganda und Wahrheit - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Propaganda and truth

A conversation with the directors Julia Lwowski and Franziska Kronfoth

NIXON IN CHINA is one of the few operas to address political events from modern history: In 1972, a United States delegation led by President Richard Nixon embarked on a multi-day visit to the People’s Republic of China. It was the first meeting of the two opposing powers in over a quarter of a century – and an absolute media spectacle. The opera, written by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman about ten years after the summit, merges historical documents and quotes into a musical narrative of modern myths and the power of imagery. A scenic reproduction of NIXON IN CHINA will now make its Berlin debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The two directors from the musical theatre collective Hauen und Stechen spoke with us about their approach to the work.

What is NIXON IN CHINA about, aside from the actual state visit?

Julia Lwowski: It’s about the measuring of power between two titans. Although the neoliberal imperialism of America and the exploitative communism of China are contrary political ideologies, they are similar in their brutality. Both systems cost a lot of human lives. NIXON IN CHINA is also a deeply American work, from the Broadway-inspired music and the use of English to the portrayal of the characters themselves. Although the libretto and music poke fun at the USA, the Americans are the sympathetic figures here. The protagonists‘ dark sides are placed further in the background. Essentially, it’s about much more than a visit: It’s about lies, propaganda, and questioning supposed truths.

NIXON is a textbook example of minimal music, even though Adams’ composition borrows from European classical music and the big band sounds of the swing era to create a more formal sound. The repetitions and great, dramatic swells are very captivating. One feels as though they are losing sight of time and the rather serious subject matter itself by getting lost in the music. What does this mean for your production?

Franziska Kronfoth: We noticed when we were starting out that the music has these immense waves, presumably to depict images of power through sound. These images, which pile up in layers, are hard to shake with just one interpretation – and maybe you don’t want to shake them at all. It’s an intimidating task. Because the piece does not itself address the responsibilities of these leaders, it’s all the more important that we do this through imagery on the stage.

How exactly do you achieve this?

Franziska Kronfoth: By making use of surrealism, which is especially prominent in the third act. We don’t take the documentarian approach to the opera, but rather present it in displaced, inflated and gigantic imagery. This production of images via video and live camera relates to the machinery of propaganda operating behind the scenes of the state visit. We try to use these means of propaganda for our narrative – for the search for a truth other than that which might be shown in this opera and in the history books. Ideally, it causes one to reflect on power and politics, and what makes a society liveable.

Julia Lwowski: When we were starting on this project, we strove to narrate all the information and historical allusions in the opera. We quickly learned that to do this, we would probably need at least twenty operas and it would not be in line with how we work. And so we looked for leeway in the historical facts, digging through the humus of history to find things that the cameras missed. The constant repetitions of the minimal music helps us distance ourselves somewhat from the template before us.

The characters in the play are public figures. For example, Henry Kissinger passed away just a few months ago. Are these roles that the singers can truly embody?

Julia Lwowski: Because the story concerns recent history, some of the performers did witness or at least read about these events as they happened. It’s entirely clear to us that we can’t create the illusion that the singers are in fact Richard Nixon, Mao Zedong or Jiang Qing, nor do we want to. In this way, the work is radically different from other operas. They don and shed their roles, and this epic moment allows us to break through the fourth wall and break down the illusions of the stage.

What happens in the third act that you mentioned, and why is it so crucial for how the work is to be understood?

Franziska Kronfoth: This is when the characters enter into a timeless state in which they sink into their memories and thoughts. Mao and Jiang Qing witness the establishment of communist China. Richard and Pat Nixon remember when he was a soldier stationed in the South Pacific theatre. This private and apolitical moment is highly problematic for one reason: The individuals are absolved of their responsibility and the work gets lost in this poetry of reflection, memory and private life. Yet we don’t want to let these people off the hook, and in our interpretation we counteract this in our own way.

Interview by Carolin Müller-Dohle

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