It is ironic that the opera “Nixon in China” by John Adams, in which cultural biases, ideological contradictions and the theater of politics are portrayed with a lot of wit, got caught in the vortex of political correctness.
The dramatization of Nixon's historical demarche into the “communist heart of darkness”, as the composer formulated the mission, probably alluding to Joseph Conrad's narrative questioning of colonialism, has been a rollercoaster of reception.
Last week the Scottish Opera celebrated the nomination of their production of “Nixon in China” for a culture award.
Two days later, a humble apology followed and the application withdrew from the race for the award.
An organization that advocates “the humanization of the representation of British East and Southeast Asians” in cultural life picked up the tweet from a composer of East Asian origin who accused the Scottish Opera of “yellowfacing”, the casting of East Asian roles with white actors and their stereotyping through the mask.
Shed light on facets of being human
The composer, who had just 343 Twitter followers, not only criticized the inadequate Asian representation on and behind the stage. He also called for color composers and librettists to be commissioned with new works that presented “race / culture” in a nuanced manner. Labor MP Sarah Owen, who is of Chinese descent, reiterated the outrage. She wanted to know why the staging contained so few East and Southeast Asians, why there were curved eyelid lines, whether the taxpayer had contributed and why everything was going on.
The Scottish Opera contrite regretted having caused offense with the cast and the stage make-up, and justified the withdrawal from the prize race by stating that the organization did not want to receive a prize if it had inadvertently caused displeasure. What went unmentioned in all this was that Nixon was cast with a black baritone in the production. If the argument against the Scottish Opera were to be carried through to the end, this cast would not correspond to reality either. Then Turandot would always have to be performed by Asian women, Shylock by a Jew, Richard III. by a hunchback and Anne Boleyn by a white woman, not a black woman, as is the case now in a British television series. It makes all the sense in what the actors do to shed their own identity and adopt another,to shed light on facets of being human. “Nixon in China” is one of the few contemporary operas that have made it into the international repertoire because Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman succeeded in alienating reality so magnificently, without which theater would not be theater.