16 June 2008

Nixon in China: A Footnote.

First, let me say that I absolutely loved the production of Nixon in China.

It was a terrific production of a truly great American opera. The singers were all right on the money, and they really looked like their characters. The set design was beautifully-utilized minimalist.

The opera was really exciting and moving. Thoroughly great.

Except. . .

Oh, there was just this one little thing I noticed. Hardly worth mentioning. It didn't wreck the opera for me or anything like that. Just something that struck me.

OK, but it did bug me for the minute or so it lasted. More than that, it made me think again about how disconnected we are with some pretty important facts.

Here it is:

At the beginning of the opera, Nixon's plane lands on the tarmac in Peking and he comes down stairs to meet with Chou En-lai and other dignitaries.

Some pleasantries are exchanged, and then Nixon muses:

News has a kind of mystery:
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the world was listening.

He continues musing on the theme of this point in history.

Part of the set design of this production had two rows of huge rectangular television sets fly in from above, lowering down slowly until they reach the stage floor. These TVs, made to evoke the gargantuan console sets of the 1970s, are used variously as platforms and so forth. But often the tv screens are showing bits of footage of the actual historic Nixon visit to China.

As Nixon muses at his place in history, one of the television screens begins to show an animation of a spinning earth. Then another tv picks it up. And soon all or most of the televisions in one row show this earth, spinning, spinning, spinning.

Nixon is visiting China and it is a very special place in history and all the world is watching and the earth is spinning, spinning, spinning. . .

. . .and the earth is spinning the wrong way!!

I looked again. Could it be true?

I looked and thought about it. And the earth. . .nay, the earths. . .were all spinning in the wrong direction! They were going clockwise!

That would make the sun rise in the west and set in the east.

The words came back to me from my college astronomy teacher. She had nailed this phrase into our heads at every opportunity. It described the direction of spin of the earth and of the solar system, and of most planets in the solar system: "counter-clockwise when viewed from above."

And these 8 or so earths on stage while Nixon was singing were clearly turning clockwise. Wrong!

It just reminds me how there is a real ignorance about even the simplest astronomical facts, especially in movies. I am thinking right now of one in particular that stuck in my craw, a movie whose very plot depended on the phases of the moon, and whose makers got the progression of those phases WRONG! (more on that in a future post.)

I mean, this is something we learned in elementary school, isn't it? Or junior high at the latest? Why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west??

And here was this expensively-designed opera on stage of a major new opera house. How many people viewed and approved the video that appeared on those tv screens? And how many people viewed it in rehearsals and so forth?

And no one noticed that the earth was turning the wrong way??

When I have talked to people about this, some have thought that maybe it was done on purpose, to say something ironic about this point in history. But nothing about the lyrics or the set design otherwise hinted as such a use of irony.

I believe I'll write a letter to the opera company.

Details forthcoming. . .

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