Picks and Pans Review: Great Performances: Nixon in China

UPDATED 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Fri., April 15, 9 p.m. ET)


Okay, so call me a cultural spud, but I don't like opera. I hate people who talk slowly and people who repeat themselves—ergo, I hate opera. But hate is too mild and wimpy a word for what I think of this opera. Walter Cronkite introduces the world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera with a little nostalgia about his presidential visit to Beijing (née Peking) in 1972: "In our wildest imagination, not one of us who witnessed those events would have thought that one day in the not-so-distant future Richard Nixon's historic journey to China would become the subject of a grand opera. But why not?" I'll tell you why not, Uncle Walter: because it's a dumb idea. And it makes for a criminally dull show. No, this is worse than dull. Dull is too passive a description. Nixon in China is more aggressive. It goes out of its way to irritate and offend every sense (including, I could swear, smell). Set to a lifeless, tuneless, cut-rate imitation of Koyaanisqatsi—the credits say that John Adams wrote the music, but I'd rather call him Philip Plexiglass—we hear the libretto written by poet Alice Goodman. Poetry, that's what I'd call it, all right. Richard Nixon sings: "All that I say is misconstrued. Your lipstick's crooked." Pat Nixon sings back: "It is? Oh. There isn't much that I can do, is there? Who's seen my handkerchief?" Henry Kissinger pipes in later: "Premier, please, where's the toilet?" And joining in (to make a gang of four), Madame Mao sings: "I've heard enough." Amen. Some folks—the kind who wear backpacks and actually miss Garrison Keillor—whine at me whenever I'm mean to a PBS show. They say that I should be more charitable to PBS shows, Brit shows, opera and such just because they are cultural, not pop cultural. Wrong. Bad is bad. Whether it is a bad opera or a bad series starring a car, it deserves the same dose of venom.

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