'Nixon' in China, and Dubuque, Too

Going behind the scenes with the pre-production crew at the Met as they prepare to transmit a New York opera to thousands of theatergoers around the world

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On February 21, 1972, when Richard Nixon visited China, the technology used to beam the welcoming party around the planet and back to the United States was state-of-the-art. Nixon made sure of it. As the presidential plane, the Spirit of '76, descended the gray Peking skies, a satellite hook-up installed in China by White House staffers waited to capture and disseminate "the key picture of the whole trip," as the president called it.

The picture became an icon of Realpolitik, in spite of the fuss. On the ground, the scene was composed of brilliant blues (the Chinese premier Chou En-lai's long ceremonial coat and the president's business suit), subversive reds (the plane's airstairs and the far away banners), and, less conspicuously, the drab green worn by the 500 Chinese honor guards in attendance. There were stars on the soldier's caps and on the American and Chinese flags that hung over the proceedings. But most crucially for Nixon, there were two pair of hands clasped, his and Chou's -- West glad-handing East.

The scene came together without a hitch, like something from a double proscenium, even if the details didn't register as clearly as the president might have liked for many of the folks back in the U.S. One viewer in Nixon's home state of California, a 25-year-old music student named John Adams, watched the event on a little black and white set, the figures of Nixon and Chou floating as a single shape on Adams' screen.

Like a televised sporting event, the on-site decisions behind a Live program happen in a trailer outside the Met.

It was undoubtedly these ghosts, tormented by an uneven cathodic flow, which revisited Adams' imagination when, eleven years later, a 23-year old theater director named Peter Sellers approached the composer with an idea for an opera called "Nixon in China."

Last week in New York, a new production of Nixon in China had its Metropolitan Opera premiere. For the stage crew, the curtain marked a triumph. But for a shadow staff of broadcast professionals, pre-production had only begun. It's this small group of producers and technicians who are charged with a task uncannily similar to the White House's in the winter of 1972. They are presently readying Adams' opera (with a libretto by American poet Alice Goodman) for satellite transmission to over 600 cinemas around the world as part of the Met's popular series, Live in HD.

The Met's experiments with the airwaves go back a century when, in 1910, Enrico Caruso starred in a pioneering radio broadcast. Then, in 1948, as television began to divide and conquer radio listeners' attention spans, ABC TV carried a premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's Othello. The true precedent for Live in HD, though, was transmitted in 1952, when cinema audiences in 27 U.S. cities received the Met's opening night performance of Georges Bizet's Carmen. In the 20th century's second half, the Met's affair with technology cooled, allowing for only the occasional flame-up, including an early high-definition telecast to Japan in 1991.

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Andrew Stout has written profiles, humor, and essays for The Economist online, Interview online, and SF Weekly, among other publications. His Internet radio station, This Day Has One Hundred Years, launches in the spring.

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