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Klinghoffer Reborn 

John Adams at the Beeb at the Barb

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
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Photo by Deborah O’Grady

On September 11 John Adams was in London, rehearsing vocal forces for his 10-year-old opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which the BBC was preparing for its first-ever British hearing. “The news arrived in early afternoon,” Adams remembered last week, back in London for the actual performance. “I walked out into the lobby, and there was all this television about the World Trade Center catastrophe. It only took a few seconds to realize that my opera had suddenly developed some built-in problems.

“Later that afternoon I met with the cast and the chorus to talk about whether we should cancel the performance or move on. Their message, and I think it was unanimous, was that they wanted to go on, that the opposition of inflammatory messages in Alice Goodman’s libretto actually offered a special kind of solace. After all, Klinghoffer has lived on the edge of the cliff since its first performances in 1991. There were people then who hated it enough to want to kill it. Now I imagine they wish they had tried harder.”

Like the earlier Nixon in China, the first collaboration by Adams, Goodman and the high-flying stage director Peter Sellars, The Death of Klinghoffer was a venture in turning actual headlines into an operatic commodity — “CNN Opera,” as the genre soon became dubbed. Its action was the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in the summer of 1985 and the gratuitous murder of an American, Jewish, wheelchair-bound tourist, Leon Klinghoffer. The opera surrounds the event with a series of deeply emotional elegiac choruses in which hypothetical groups of exiles, Arab and Israeli, give personal voice to the conflicts and atrocities that divided their lands then and still do. Those thoughts are further echoed by participants in the drama — the confused, undermotivated Palestinians most of all. “America,” snarls one of them, “is one big Jew.”

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The major sin of the opera, as detractors have been trumpeting for 10 years, now more loudly than ever, is that Adams’ music and Goodman’s words — many of them lifted straight from biblical lamentations — give the personages on both sides of a murderous conflict a genuine, lyrical personality. That wasn’t always the plan, however. “Peter’s scenario,” Goodman recalled, “was to tell the Klinghoffer story in the first act and then turn the tone into satire. We realized early on that this wouldn’t work. In a sense, you could say that John and I hijacked the opera away from Peter.” (Beaming as usual, Sellars was in London to hear his onetime baby. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he chortled.)

Klinghoffer’s would-be killers at the start included most of the East Coast press. I’ll never forget the hot words during the bus ride back from the Brooklyn Academy after the premiere; another couple of blocks and there might have been a re-enactment of the murder itself. Both the San Francisco and Los Angeles operas were among the co-commissioners. The San Francisco performance in 1992 drew pickets from a Jewish information center; the Los Angeles performance never happened. By the time the Nonesuch recording came out, the opera was, by all accounts, already dead. Michael Steinberg’s liner notes for the recording contained an ironically prophetic message: “On whichever date you read these words,” he wrote concerning the tragedy of Leon Klinghoffer, “there will be a new installment in the morning paper.”

Came September 11, Steinberg’s words took on a new impact. So did the opera. In early October Mark Swed eloquently wrote, in a Calendar cover story in the Los Angeles Times, that the work had assumed an enhanced relevance that ordained a revival. A month later, however, the Boston Symphony Orchestra backed out of a performance of the inflammatory choruses — scheduled, of course, long before 9/11 — for reasons diametrically opposite to the impulse of the London singers. On December 9, The New York Times carried a verbose polemic by the firebrand/musicologist — if that isn’t a contradiction in terms — Richard Taruskin, to the effect that it would have shown “reprehensible contempt” for the victims if the Boston Symphony had fulfilled its commitment. Back and forth flashed the letters of praise and condemnation; they still do. The BBC Symphony’s concert performance at the Barbican Centre last weekend, triumphantly sung and powerfully led by Leonard Slatkin to begin a spellbinding three-day bash of Adams’ music, was London’s hottest ticket. On the same weekend the opera was also being performed in Italy, at the Communale in Ferrara, in an English-language staging slated to make it to video. There, too, protesters had gathered outside the first performance. For the moment, The Death of Klinghoffer has become the world’s most important opera.

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