Like deities, US President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat seemingly appear out of thin air and walk down a gangway ladder to the stage. The setting is Paris’s iconic, 150-year-old Théâtre du Châtelet. Unfolding on stage is a scene from Nixon in China, an opera composed by Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams in 1987.
An aircraft is usually used to depict the couple’s arrival at China’s Peking airport in 1972. But this set — designed by contemporary Indian artist Shilpa Gupta, 36 — has shunned the literal. So a gangway ladder is brought onto the stage by four men and placed against a large brick wall and the dignitaries descend, seemingly from the ceiling. “To highlight the importance of the event and the power that Nixon possessed, I chose to give him a God-like entry,” says Gupta.
The play is being staged by Théâtre du Châtelet to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China. The brick wall itself is a fixture in most scenes, signifying the opposing nature of communist and capitalist ideology.
Last week, the du Châtelet production ended its month-long run in Paris, with Gupta’s set design among the elements that received good reviews.
Eight months pregnant when she was first offered the opportunity in February 2011, Gupta says she was immediately interested, but could not travel to Paris. So, in May of that year, the Chinese director of the opera, Chen Shi-Zheng, visited Gupta in Mumbai. Jean-Luc Choplin, general director of Théâtre du Châtelet, had discovered Gupta’s work in Paris and wanted Shi-Zheng and her to work on the production, to give it an Eastern perspective.
Choplin also wanted Gupta on board as part of his philosophy that opera stages should be open to all kind of artists. After the initial meeting, diagrams of the sets were exchanged and the set design finalised in January 2012.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my first experience with set design,” says Gupta. “There were no restrictions from the production team and that made working on the project very interesting.”
Gupta says she decided to approach the project as she would a new art project. “I wanted the designs to be metaphorical,” says Gupta. “But I also knew that the sets had to be closely related to the script and not too abstract.”
Thus, for the scene in the second act in which Nixon meets China’s chairman Mao Zedong at a banquet, Gupta designed a chandelier made of 50 TV screens, representing the vast media coverage of the event. Flashing on the screens was archival video footage from that period.
In the scene where Pat Nixon visits the Summer Palace and meets schoolchildren, Gupta placed replicas of sculptures from the Summer Palace in suspended showcases that drifted about, with the children also moving about on trolleys, representing the mechanical nature of such visits by the wives of heads of state.
“The entire project has been a learning experience,” says Gupta. “The most interesting aspect was the grand scale of designing for the opera. I had never worked on such a scale before.”
(To watch the Théâtre du Chatelet production of Nixon in China online, visit bit.ly/IjpMFO)