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Commentary

Photo by Richard Lobell
19 Oct 2014

On The Death of Klinghoffer

This is a revised version of my review of the Sept 5th 1991American premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The opera was first performed at Brussels’ La Monnaie the previous spring.

On The Death of Klinghoffer

A commentary by Estelle Gilson

Above photo by Richard Lobell

 

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 personal habits.

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 “kvetches”.

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 music.

Estelle Gilson

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