Its plot is based on the 1985 hijacking of an
Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, during
which members of the Palestinian Liberation Front took over the ship, shot and
killed the wheel-chair bound Klinghoffer, then threw him overboard in his
chair. Composed by John Adams to a libretto by Alice Goodman, the production
was directed, and is said to have been inspired, by Peter Sellars, who believes
that opera should be set in “the danger zones” of current affairs.
Klinghoffer turned out to be a danger zone for its creators.
Though each made public statements insisting the work was even-handed, it
evoked protests and charges of anti-Semitism wherever it appeared. Los Angeles
Opera and Glyndebourne Opera canceled their scheduled premieres.
The dictionary meaning of even-handed is equal toward all, just, impartial.
However, like beauty, the term seems more likely to be in the eyes of the
beholder — a fact attested to daily on the world’s playing fields. Even so cool
a sensibility as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas confessed he suspected
that every umpire refereeing a game between “his” Dallas Cowboys and
the Washington Redskins favored the “Skins”, “but none
would admit it.”
No less a language maven than William Safire conceded the “relativity” of
even-handedness when he described fellow journalist and Jew, Thomas Friedman, as
“far more even handed than I am.” The issue isn’t frivolous. Just as one’s
strong emotions might interfere with clear judgment at a ball game, they will
affect other ostensibly objectively judged experiences. What I brought to this
supposedly evenhanded dramatization of Leon Klinghoffer’s death is a moral
antipathy to PLO terrorism and murder, fear based on a special Jewish history;
a history of being despised, oppressed and treated vilely in Western literature
and drama, and knowledge that the danger zone in which Leon Klinghoffer lost
his life still exists.
That out in the open, let me say that I think the creators of the death of
Klinghoffer tried to produce an even handed work. Though the chorus, dancers,
(choreographed by Mark Morris) and projections, kept the stage awash in moving
bodies, and the orchestra under Kent Nagano, produced moments of lyrical beauty
and tension, too much weighs in as doctrinaire and anti-Semitic, and the work
fails both morally and dramatically.
Item: Performers, including chorus and dancers, are dressed alike in street
clothes. Two performers who play friends of the Klinghoffer’s in the prologue,
play terrorists in Act I and in all of Act 2, until the very last moment of the
opera when they are once again “friends.”
To some this meant amorality: “Equalizing victims and assassins.” To some in
the theater it was a source of confusion.
Item: The Klinghoffer’s friends — the Rumors (why that name?) engage in much
petty chit chat about possessions, the value of the dollar and each other’s
To many this was stereotyping Jews as crass and petty. Yet at the mention of
Yasir Arafat’s name, this husband and wife planning to sail the Mediterranean
in an era when terrorism was rampant , embrace fearfully. It’s possible their
small talk was meant to be the sort of babble we all engage in to hide our
deepest fears. But why was this scene written? It serves no dramatic purpose
except to exist between “opposing” choral statements.
Item: The Exiled Palestinian’s chorus, sung first, begins sadly and tenderly
with only soprano voices. The lines are short, the words, direct. “My father’s
house was razed/in nineteen forty-eight/When the Israelis passed/Over (get it?)
our house.” It concludes in fury with the full chorus gesturing and threatening
to “break his teeth.”
The chorus of the Exiled Jews uses longer lines, irregular verses and is
couched in allegorical language some of which didn’t make sense. “You said, ‘I
am an old woman. I thought you were dead./ I have forgotten how often we
betrayed one another.’“
To one reviewer the message was: Palestinians are “real men”. Jews, merely
But the contrast could also be a failed attempt to reflect the exiled Jews’
deeper, Biblically-tinged attachment to their land.
The basic problem is that the death which Sellars, Goodman and Adams chose
to dramatize doesn’t lend itself to even-handedness. Never mind that the
Palestinians may have a cause that they and even some Jews believe in. While
the world is (still a little) civilized, it is impossible to balance the murder
of a helpless individual, totally unknown to his killer, with that killer’s
venomous hatred, “Wherever poor men/Are gathered they can/Find Jews getting
fat…. America is one big Jew.” The evil is too heavy.
But what about ennobling Klinghoffer’s death? “This,” wrote Peter Sellars of
the opera, “is essentially a religious drama in the sense that Greek tragedy or
the Bach Passions…. are religious dramas.”
The role of the chorus in the Passions and Greek dramas varies. But whether
it tells the story, laments, rejoices or comments on what has, or what will
inexorably unfold, it intensifies emotions. Religious dramas leave one exalted.
In The Death of Klinghoffer, we have been so distanced from the characters,
that we have little feeling for them. The ship’s captain is the person whose
mind we know best and he merely ruminates. The terrorists stomp around with
machine guns (how else would you distinguish them?) singing of their various
rages. The Klinghoffers don’t open their mouths till Act 2 and when they do,
evoke little sympathy until Mrs. Klinghoffer’s last long and moving aria. There
is also a slow, lonely face-down descent from the top of the stage, harnessed
to a rope, by a dancer playing the dead Klinghoffer, that makes the death seem
almost beautiful. The problem is we know the cruelty of it. In a hundred years,
I suppose, audiences may accept the fiction.
Given that Adams has written some of America’s most eloquent and stirring
choral music, it is no surprise that the chorus sings approximately half the
music. The dancers too, are almost continuously on stage, some, as alter egos
to the opera’s principals. (When you finally catch on, it explains why there
are two men in wheel chairs on board the Achille Lauro).The opera ends
strongly, if abruptly, with Mrs. Klinghoffer’s grief. (She isn’t angry for very
long.) An epilogue scored for the entire cast, which was performed in Brussels
was left out of the New York performances I am told, because of disagreements
on how to stage it. Just as well. Having victims and killers sing together, “Oh
God, raise your hands in our defense,” does not turn The Death of Klinghoffer
into a religious drama. All it does is turn the stomach.
If The Death of Klinghoffer marks the birth of American opera, a
hope some have for it, opera is going to grow up to look like MTV. The work was
designed as an integrated audio and visual experience with no rest for the eye
or ear, but I’ll say this for it; despite its lack of moral values or sense of
tragedy, its big moments are rousing. The singers wear body mikes which opera
purists deplore, but are likely the way of the future. The balance between
orchestra and soloists was superb, and for the most part the soloists were
easily understood, although titles were displayed above left stage. The dancing
was in oversupply and often fatuous; hands close to the floor for the word
“soil”, high for “heaven”, drawn across the mouth for “spit”. Toward the end of
the opera I wished it would just go away. But I found the huge tubular steel
scaffolding by George Typsin effective, especially the scenes set high as if on
a captain’s bridge.
The soloists, Stephanie Friedman, Thomas Young, Sanford Sylvan, James
Maddalena, Janice Felty and Sheila Nadler, performers who have worked with
Sellars, “et al” before, were all excellent.
What about John Adams’ music? Operas are after all “by” Verdi, Puccini,
Wagner, not their librettists or first directors. Will this music survive? I’m
not a fan of minimalism, but I’ve liked what I’ve heard by Adams. In
“Klinghoffer” the rich-sounding orchestra has a fluid melodic line, which
captures and enhances its moods. The “flip” song of the British Dancing Girl,
is delightful. The moments of anger, whether terrorists’ or Mrs. Klinghoffer’s
brief explosion, are chilling. When I think of how critics deplored some of
Verdi’s, Puccini’s and Wagner’s first nights, I am astounded that so many who
reviewed The Death of Klinghoffer, especially those who were paying
heed to this troubled opera’s words and story, felt confident judging the
image_description=Photo by Richard Lobell
product_title=On The Death of Klinghoffer
product_by=A commentary by Estelle Gilson
product_id=Above photo by Richard Lobell