What Best Captures 21st-Century Technology? A 19th-Century Art Form

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How do you understand the myriad ways technology shapes our leaders, our discourse, our citizenship? Listen to an opera about diplomacy.

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You know the scene. Air Force One touches down on a drab airstrip. Richard Nixon disembarks, waves, descends. He shakes the hand of the Chinese Premier. Then he turns, faces the audience, and sings.

It's a tableau not quite from history, but from living composer John Adams' Nixon in China, which is playing in San Francisco to the end of this month. If you live in San Francisco, you should go see it: Few works of art consider the problems of technological communication and citizenship as adeptly and carefully as Adams' opera.

And it really is an opera. An orchestra plays below the stage, big men and women who spent years in conservatory stride around, no one ever just speaks anything. In fact, that it's an opera makes it so good. When the Met Opera presented Nixon in New York two years ago, music critic Daniel Johnson wrote, "that opera is out of step with our times is why it is absolutely essential." He quoted the opera's first director, Peter Sellars, to prove it:

One of the most important reasons to do these operas was to say precisely that we aren't getting the actual history of our times. We are used to the media feeding frenzy, with the rush to judgment and the rush for the scoop, and then it all gets dropped. In the Age of Information we are strangely underinformed about what is going on and what is at stake--exactly because there's a historical blank for so many Americans. The way journalism has evolved context is not reported very deeply. [As artists] we have to make a structure which is context rich. Opera is able to go inside to a place where the headlines aren't going. The classic thing with Greek theater is that it's not, say in Oedipus Rex, about what does an exploding eyeball look like, but about why someone would dig out their own eyes. Whether it's about suicide bombers or 9/11 or any of these events that have happened to America, the question that is not allowed to be asked to this day is "Why would people do this?" That's the question, of course, that drama asks. Exactly to find what was not in the news, what was missing from the news: that's why we worked in this genre.

And in his consideration of "the news," Sellars wound up imagining the news itself. In that grand opening aria, delivered on Chinese soil, Nixon knows the prime time news is on American TVs a world away. "The three main networks' colors glow," writes librettist Alice Goodman, "livid through drapes onto the lawn."

We're familiar with Mad Men; we know that our blog-steeped media world differs immensely from Walter Cronkite's. But Nixon in China reminds us of the profound weirdness of the 20th century broadcast, that millions of eyes watching the same broadcast means strange, self-conscious things for our representative government. "News has a kind of mystery," sings Nixon in the play's first lines. "When I shook hands with Chou En-lai [...] / Just now, the whole world was listening." Later, Nixon marvels at how "the eyes and ears of history / caught every gesture and every word," and with an anxious, adventurous melisma on transforming, says they "are transforming us, as we, transfixed, made history." Books, cameras, the ability to preserve and project thoughts and images across the world: these fill the opera. Adams' proposition is that the only way to really, deeply understand the last century (and our own) is to make it weird -- to sing about it.

As far as this San Francisco production: I haven't seen it, but reviews are sterling. Joshua Kosman of the city's Chronicle writes the production is "suave, imaginative and superbly sung." Outwest Arts says the SF Opera has "brought a near perfect production of this landmark of musical theater to the stage." Hopefully so, though even a mediocre production would be informative. Nixon revels in questions that are deeply contemporary (and deeply relevant to all the programmers, thinkers and designers who dot the Bay Area): how we shape our thoughts to technology, how we organize our homes and communities around it, and how we imagine ourselves into being through it.

If you live in San Francisco, if you live near driving distance of San Francisco, if you can construe a business trip to San Francisco, buy a ticket and go.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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