Drama or Distortion
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the set design and staging of the production—in short, to see themselves as Nixon in China experts.
Now that your students have learned the history behind Nixon in China and have watched the transmission, they will be interested in and able to compare the historical figures they have seen in the newsreels with the operatic characters based on them. Were there important differences between the figures in the documentaries and their operatic counterparts? Were there traits that were exaggerated or omitted in the opera? If so, why do they think that the opera’s creators made those changes? Do they agree with the changes made?
This common practice of altering historical fact when creating a work of art is known as “creative license”. Though some minor tweaking of chronology and character traits for dramatic effect is generally accepted, artists are often criticized for presenting more liberally altered depictions because audience members who may not be familiar with the historical events may take the dramatized version for reality. For example, many who view the film Amadeus may believe that Mozart’s death was caused by fellow composer Antonio Salieri poisoning him, while historians have proven this to be false. Historical operas including Verdi’s Don Carlo and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov are also filled with examples of creative license which many accept as historical fact.
A famous American painting provides a quick and clear way to illustrate the concept of creative license: in John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, all of that document's authors and most of its signers are shown in the same room at the same time. No such occasion, in fact, ever occurred. But by conflating several meetings, Trumbull created an iconic image intended to commemorate the entire group and to evoke patriotic feelings. (Visit the Seattle Art Museum’s website for images and notes on the painting).
Discuss your class’s feelings about creative license. If they admired a historic work of art and only later they learned that it featured deliberate inaccuracies for the sake of effect, would that affect their appreciation of the work? Why or why not?
As a follow-up, ask your students to find and bring in examples of creative license in movies, television programs, or other popular cultural media they know. These may include a historical TV series such as The Tudors or films including Apollo 13, Gandhi, Patton, Schindler’s List, The Right Stuff, Reds, All the President’s Men, and especially Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon. They may find that their views on creative license will evolve.