Manjari Sihare on Shilpa Gupta’s set design for the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris
New York: In April 2012, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris showcased John Adam’s opera Nixon in China, featuring Shilpa Gupta’s first ever-set design for an opera stage. The tradition of artists designing opera, ballet and theatre sets is a well-established one, particularly in Paris, where several impressionist and post-impressionist painters including Picasso, Chagall and Dali contributed to important theatrical productions.
Centered on American President Richard Nixon’s 1972 meeting with China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Tse-Tung, this opera documents a watershed event in American-Chinese relations. An article in the Hindustan Times on May 27, 2012, records that this project dates back to the summer of last year, when the director of Théâtre du Châtelet approached Gupta to design the set, having seen her work in Paris.
The opera opens with Nixon and his wife, Pat, stepping out of a big wall designed by Shilpa Gupta – evoking China’s isolation from the West and the differences between the two societies. Gupta’s design captures the confrontation between the two worlds and the complexity of protocols during such diplomatic visits. The state banquet scene at the end of Act I has a chandelier composed of 50 TV screens, which Gupta created in collaboration with video artist Olivier Roset, emblematic of the media frenzy that surrounded this event. These screens flash archival video montages from that period. In Act II, Gupta underscores the American First Lady’s visit to the Summer Palace using floating golden statues of mythical creatures in glass cases and moving children in automated trolleys – a comment on the powered nature of such visits by the wives of the heads of states.
To see the entire production of Nixon in China, click here.