No one was trembling in their seats at the Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer on October 20. Taking no chances, the police presence outside the hall was considerable, and if you made light of it, the box office manager was quick to frown. “It’s for your own protection, sir.” But how can this Mayfly of a contretemps be seen as anything inflammatory? Every lens you view it through is skewed. A woman was introduced at the rally outside (protesters had been squeezed into the tiny strip park that separates Lincoln Center from Broadway) as a heroine for Israel. Through a bullhorn she shouted that “Peter Gelb, a Jew, has brought danger to all of us.” It would take the thinnest of skins and hottest of heads to remotely believe such a charge.
Seen through the cynical eyes of the media, l’affaire Klinghoffer was the news equivalent of “Street Urchins Throw Snowballs at Gentleman’s Top Hat.” On the way through the police cordon I saw two miniature white poodles barking at a patrolman’s ankles. A dog psychic might have revealed that they were screaming “Attica! Attica!” In any event, the deflating back story is that Klinghoffer had already played in New York before, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991, the year the opera premiered, and in concert in 2003 with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Its incendiary potential went untapped on both occasions.
Which is not to say that the work lacks controversy. Its 25 stagings to date, in prestige venues from San Francisco and Edinburgh to Paris and Vienna, attest to the undeniable fact that Klinghoffer trails a lit fuse behind it. The depiction of a luxury cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, hijacked by four members of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1985 is spine-tingling in a vivid production, as this new one is. The murder of an elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish New Yorker—Leon Klinghoffer was shot in the head and his body thrown overboard—reignites the same Israeli-Palestinian rage that has become like historical wallpaper lining every year since 1948. And, most pointedly, the political correctness of Alice Goodman’s libretto, which views Palestinian terrorism from a café table in downtown Berkeley, invites charges of anti-Semitism that skirt the edge of credibility. There’s a fine line between sympathetically portraying the Palestinian plight and rationalizing the hatred of Israel that goes with it.
This is that rare opera whose controversy is entirely about the words. The man behind me shouted, “Murder brought to you by Peter Gelb.” Someone else repeatedly shouted, “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.” These outbursts incited mixed applause and boos. The bottom line, however, is that New York is a city of liberal persuasion, and there were lusty bravos the minute conductor David Robertson appeared, and the final reception was loudly enthusiastic. (Another man behind me started booing the conductor when he came on stage for his bow, until he was told that this wasn’t John Adams. “Oops, sorry,” he mumbled.)
Writing a hot-button opera has been good for Adams’s box office appeal—I’m not sure how it will affect future donations to the Met from wealthy Jewish benefactors—but it has obscured serious talk about The Death of Klinghoffer as a work of art. For me, the opera’s most serious problem is the mismatch between the score and the libretto. Alice Goodman provided a loopy book for Nixon in China, amusing in its portrayal of Pat and Dick, hypnotic in its imitation of robotic Maoist propaganda, and often effective in the inner reflections of its main characters, in particular the dying Zhou Enlai. But things come a little undone in Klinghoffer because the challenge was simply beyond Goodman’s abilities.
The random murder of one innocent tourist, however filled with pathos, lacks the weight of terrorism as a burning subject. Leon Klinghoffer must somehow be transformed into a potent symbol for contemporary Judaism. At the same time, the complex fate of the Palestinians must be shown without justifying the crimes of four PLO operatives. Goodman’s solution is to bounce around from viewpoint to viewpoint. The hijackers feel that they are in the right, and so when Mamoud, the youngest, sings of his love of music, what are we to think? He’s still a brutal fanatic.
Klinghoffer himself is given a courageous outburst of defiance marked by the words, “We’re human. We are the kind of people you want to kill.” Huh? Hearing of her husband’s murder from the Captain, Marilyn Klinghoffer, who has terminal cancer, assails him for “embracing” the hijackers, then lapses into grief-stricken love for Leon, then goes on to sing of the world to come where they will meet again. Goodman just throws in the next thing that occurs to her, because with so slight a subject, the ball could be dropped at any minute.
And it is. My hackles rose when a keening Palestinian mother hovers over the attacker who will soon shoot Klinghoffer in cold blood, as if her tender distress is the moral equivalent of the widow Klinghoffer’s loss (all four hijackers went free, walking safely ashore in Cairo through a negotiated deal). The libretto is a farrago of reportage, wandering ruminations, fierce partisan outbursts, Everyman symbolism, “funny” Goldie Hawn shtick from a dopey blonde British dancer who is part of the ship’s entertainment, and reminiscences by various characters after the fact. (This last was compared to the device Britten used in Billy Budd, framing the tale as a memory of Captain Vere’s, but here it’s just repetitive and dull.)
The notion that opera can be constructed like a collage appeals to Adams. He went even further in the same direction with Doctor Atomic (2005). But the effect is cold and distancing. Frankly, I felt nothing for these characters until Marilyn’s final aria, where the warmth of emotion actually came through instead of being observed, analyzed, rationalized, and decorated with fancy orchestration. In no small part this sudden burst of warm humanity was due to the excellent Seattle-born mezzo, Michaela Martens, who connected with the audience every time she appeared.
The other principal singers, baritones Paulo Szot as the Captain and Alan Opie as Klinghoffer, sang with command—indeed, the entire production was cast from strength—but Adams made the decision to imitate the meandering pace of spoken speech rather than provide shaped melodic lines. It works in Boris Godunov, but when superimposed on a dense, constantly moving, agitated orchestral score, the result in Klinghoffer was that you rarely understood what was being sung. This forced your eyes to be glued to a word-by-word crawl on the Met titles. More seriously, the effect of everyday speech rhythm became monotonous and unmusical, even though occasionally there were inward, reflective monologues with corresponding soft music. I had the same complaint about Doctor Atomic’s even more literalist recitation of facts, figures, and weather reports, but apparently I’m in a critical minority.
What holds the opera together are two strong components. First, the dynamic staging by Tom Morris, which originally appeared at English National Opera in 2012. As often happens today, Morris works primarily as a stage director, being the head of the Bristol Old Vic. The core of his conception was to prefer realism over symbolism, a very good choice when the symbols are this wobbly.
Journalistic titles on the back wall narrate the events hour by hour. We find ourselves on the deck and in locales around the ship, with stage machinery and lighting to vary the perspective. In the interludes devoted to the chorus, who depict a wandering contingent of “exiled Palestinians” and “exiled Jews,” the scene shifts to the desert, where we get growing Muslim despair matched against hopeful Israeli kibbutzers (the latter are inspired by a pair of naked male dancers holding forth sprouting green plants—two Adams and no Eve in this new Garden of Eden). Background projections play their part, from the brilliant heat of the Mediterranean sun to lurid graffiti behind PLO street demonstrations. Morris made stronger what was already strong and disguised what was weak.
And finally, Adams himself has provided one of his most impressive scores. By 1991 he was well past the chugging major-chord clichés of virginal Minimalism. As productive as those gestures had been, there was a danger that he would be remembered for holding Philip Glass’s hat and coat. Like Glass, Adams is educated in a broad cultural sense and is even more flexible in his musical gleanings. The music for Klinghoffer is barely recognizable as coming from the composer of Nixon in China. There are no breezy ditties, cheerful rhythmic pulses, unison choral chanting, or optimism. Minimalism can be adapted to any mood, of course, but to his credit Adams plunged into unexpected depths of harmony, orchestral color, and plangent moods. More than anything, the score to Klinghoffer reminded me of the dense curtains of sound delivered in his much acclaimed Harmonielehre (1984-85) while veering more into darkness.
Such entrancing, gorgeous orchestral writing threatens to steal the limelight, as it does repeatedly in this collaboration. Adams is overpoweringly ingenious; Goodman’s libretto and the real events unfolding on stage are almost incidental. On one hand, any other composer should be so lucky. You can’t tear your attention away from the orchestra. On the other hand, the result is rather like having the orchestra play Götterdämmerung during a mawkish Lifetime Channel movie (the story was in fact turned into two made-for-TV docudramas). Instead of ennobling Leon Klinghoffer and summoning the forces of the collective unconscious (one of Adams’s stated goals), the opposite occurred. Fish roe was dressed up as caviar.
Still, the whole evening was an event unusual in Met history. Manager Peter Gelb has worked to bring new productions up to contemporary theater standards. Are his brilliant successes (like Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead and Shostakovich’s The Nose) worth the banishment of plush Zefferelli lollapaloozas and Otto Schenk’s realistic Wagner spectacles, which were long the Met’s signature? Falling attendance and captious critics say no. But the real decline has occurred among great singers, arguably at an all-time low. This is beyond Gelb’s control, as is the fact the Klinghoffer’s children hate Adams’s opera (again because of the words).
The Death of Klinghoffer doesn’t glorify terrorists, contra its more hysterical opponents. It’s not anti-Semitic, although it gives open voice—and expensive stage time—to those who are. To my surprise, I can’t fully endorse the Met’s decision to put on the opera, but if an opportunity comes along to hear the score on its own, I will eagerly seize it.