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Klinghoffer Reborn

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.”

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.

 

In the years since Klinghoffer’s early travails, Alice Goodman has abandoned her Jewish upbringing, been ordained as â an Anglican minister and now preaches to a largely Palestinian congregation at a church in London’s outskirts. Adams, too, has moved explosively ahead, as London’s weekend emphatically demonstrated. Still, the apparent resuscitation of his “problem” opera has brought on memories, which he enlarged upon in a breath-catching moment during his wall-to-wall celebration. “We knew we had a difficult subject,” he recalled. “Alice immersed herself in the Koran — in English, of course — which isn’t what nice Jewish girls in Chicago naturally do. Like most American non-Jews, I had a vague idea about Jewish history. In the bookstores there was plenty to read on the subject from a Jewish point of view. Except for the writings of Edward Said, a powerful writer of Palestinian background, there was almost nothing from the other side. We read essays on the conflict, but we resolved to stay away from television and all the stereotyped interviews. What we wanted to do most of all — and this is where we had to part company from Peter’s conception — was to give those terrorist hijackers inner lives, through music and words. But that was enough to turn me into an anti-Semite in the eyes of very many people.”

In some of my very old copies of Britain’s The Gramophone there are reviews of American composers — Bernstein, Copland — that ridicule the very oxymoron. How dare these upstart colonials, wrote the august Compton MacKenzie and his confreres, aspire to the sacred realm of composition, and demand space alongside our beloved Elgar? Even within the last decade, the noted and notable film documentarian Tony Palmer (he of the nine-hour Wagner) was refused BBC support for an Adams documentary that eventually became the superb, privately funded Hail Bop! Times have, apparently, changed; the look of the crowds that pushed into the convoluted precincts of the Barbican and stood in long queues in hopes (usually dashed) of turned-back tickets for concerts, even for pre-concert lectures, was widely spread from collegian to codger. If John Adams is any proof, the American composer has in British eyes advanced from curiosity to superstar.

Adams, 54, is, of course, a special case, a product of great creative skill and exquisite timing. Tarred with the academic rectitude of a Harvard education, he seemed to know when to walk away, and when to blend the sounds of the real world into his acquired rigid Schoenbergian precepts. Academic purity was still the air of choice around 1971, but Adams had already learned to pollute it with alien accents: rock, jazz and the freedoms as preached by John Cage. The 1977 Phrygian Gates, the first music he acknowledges, is also his archetypal minimalist work: 25 minutes of richly colored throb all in one place, broken only near the end by a wrenching shift to somewhere else.

“Minimalism was, for me,” Adams reminisced, “the greatest restorative force from the structures and the abstruse language of, say, Elliott Carter and the tone-row people who were holding music in a death-embrace. It had that freshness, and it was listenable. At the same time, there was this stasis in early Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The music never went anywhere, and I wanted momentum.” That, indeed, is what begins to happen in Adams’ meteoric career: the great swoop down from a holding pattern into a gut-busting outbreak of E-flat in the Grand Pianola Music, which drew boos at its 1983 New York premiere but survives as an early career landmark; the energy explosively uncoiling in twists and turns in the 1992 Chamber Symphony; the great hootenanny that takes over at the end of Hallelujah Junction, the glorious two-piano romp that Adams fashioned in 1998 as a gift to Ernest Fleischmann.

The marvel of Adams — splendidly, exhaustively (and, I have to confess, exhaustingly) surveyed in the Beeb’s 30-hours-plus of music, film and enlightened discussion — is his astonishing gift for combinations, for blending a broad musical vernacular into a bristling newness. It doesn’t always work, of course. Guide to Strange Places, a brand-new 24-minute BBC commission (inspired by a travel book) that ended the weekend, came off as a somewhat drier reworking of the Chamber Symphony’s manic convolutions. Century Rolls, the piano concerto for Emanuel Ax that was played in Los Angeles last season, does tend to roll off the edge.

The Adams outpouring honored a BBC tradition: a weekend in January given over to a single composer, with everything broadcast (most of it live). Last year’s honoree was Alfred Schnittke; Kurt Weill was celebrated the year before. Think of just that for a minute: a nation’s prime radio facility given over to an in-depth exploration of important contemporary creativity. (Could, or would, KUSC? NPR?)

 

The BBC Symphony is neither a superbly tuned nor an accident-proof orchestra; yet under Slatkin and, in the final concert, Adams himself, it sent some brave and forthright playing out into the acoustically tricky Barbican Hall. And, while I blush for entertaining such thoughts in a hall where Peter Sellars also sat, I found the Klinghoffer as a concert performance, with the chorus delivering its mighty and stirring invocations full-face, a more profound experience than when staged.

Mighty and stirring, to be sure; yet I don’t think I am the only one to carry away and cherish memories as well of smaller sounds during the Barbican’s Adams immersion: the wistful plangence of the clarinet concerto called Gnarly Buttons in Michael Collins’ wonderfully colored performance; the phenomenal depths in Leila Josefowicz’s playing of the Violin Concerto; the deep, lush sorrows in The Wound-Dresser, the haunting Whitman poetry sung by Christopher Maltman; pianist Rolf Hind’s staggering delivery of Phrygian Gates.

One more memory. This one is of the composer before a capacity crowd at a pre-concert talk — dealing, as I remember, with the basic question of what music is, or ought to be:

“Something beautiful,” said John Adams, “that tells the truth.”


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