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A Work Divided

PHILIP KENNICOTT looks at the complicated musical, political and social issues that surround John Adams’s opera, The Death of Klinghoffer.

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Tom Morris’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer at English National Opera in 2012, with Edwin Vega (Molqi), Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer), Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer) and Sidney Outlaw (Rambo)
© Dylan Martinez/Reuters/Corbis 2014
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Red Spacer 1213 “American Master” John Adams as the voice of the U.S. in the twenty-first century (William R. Braun,  October 2008)
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The Achille Lauro in Port Said after the hijacking, October 1985
© Mike Nelson–Jean Claude Delmas/AFP/Getty Images 2014

A complicated set of oppositions, even antinomies, governs John Adams’s best and still most controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The 1991 drama, scheduled to arrive at the Met on October 20, develops strong contrasts between the individual voice and chorus, between personal narrative and collective identity; it uneasily fuses both acoustic and electronic sounds; and it deals in poetic dichotomies between land and sea, good and evil, dreams of hope and memories of grievance. But in the end, even more than two decades after its premiere, the only division that matters when people talk of this dark, deeply moving work is the one that animates its plot and sustains its place as a lightning rod in the culture wars — the division between Jews and Palestinians who both lay claim to the same strip of earth known as the Holy Land.

That primal antagonism assured that when the opera received its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music there would be many in the audience whose feelings were too raw to enter into the work sympathetically. The opera takes its name from an elderly Jewish passenger on an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. After attempting to make port in Syria and secure the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the hijackers turned violent. They murdered the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer and dumped his body overboard, a crime that horrified the world because he was, of course, entirely innocent, helpless and on vacation. 

The characters in the opera include Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn; the captain of the cruise ship; several passengers who largely inhabit national “types”; and four hijackers, whose aggression is fueled by memories of homes lost and relatives killed in the decades-long struggle between the Jewish state and Palestinians displaced by and unreconciled to its creation. 

With the Middle East again in turmoil, Iran seemingly intent on developing a nuclear weapon, Israel again at war with Hamas, and anti-Semitism achieving both political and counter-cultural cachet well beyond the margins of European politics, the opera’s scheduled premiere at the Met has rekindled uneasiness about exactly what the composer, his librettist Alice Goodman, and the impresario of the original project, director Peter Sellars, were up to in this often despairing look into the terrorist mind. Indeed, the Met has been urged to drop the production, which was first seen in 2012 at English National Opera without significant political controversy. In response to the concerns of the Klinghoffer family and the Anti-Defamation League, the Met has agreed to cancel the scheduled Live in HD transmission on November 15. 

“I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, in a press statement. “But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.” Music critics and editorialists around the country denounced the Met’s cancellation of the transmission as both an empty and a somewhat irrational gesture, while those who believe the opera is anti-Semitic and in bad taste won’t be assuaged simply because the Met has dropped it from the HD schedule. 

We are, it seems, right back where we were in March 1991, when the authorities in Brussels (where Klinghoffer had its world premiere) worried about attacks on the Théâtre de la Monnaie, and a few months later in New York, where the opera was denounced by a broad cross-section of this country’s Jewish intellectual elite. The controversy over the opera, like the hatred and violence it unflinchingly depicts, is enough to make one despair. It is tempting to agree, finally, and with bitter resignation, that perhaps it was never a good idea to put such things onstage, perhaps there was never a way this story could be told in operatic form. Perhaps art simply isn’t up to the task of broaching and dealing with the issues raised by the unending war in the Middle East.

But if not art, then what?

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Tom Morris’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO
© Robbie Jack/Corbis 2014

To understand how an opera that depicts anti-Semitism could itself become subject to the charge of being anti-Semitic, one has to go back to the days of its creation and premiere. Adams started composing the score in 1989, the height of the homegrown American “culture wars,” and he finished it as the U.S. launched into the first Iraq War. There were deep fissures in American society that had been widening since Ronald Reagan was elected President more than a decade earlier. Perhaps far more than they do now, many artists still believed that by giving voice to the dispossessed, and by creating works that were philosophically and culturally polyphonic, art could mend the world. At the same time, others, who took a traditionalist view of art, were suspicious of anything that seemed morally relativistic, and they connected many of the prevailing aesthetic ideas in theater and opera with what they saw as moral sponginess. Suspicion was everywhere. 

So when The Death of Klinghoffer had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it didn’t just wander into the fraught question of Middle East politics; it touched on a host of other issues and debates — about minimalism and the avant garde in music and about the definition and proper bounds of opera. It felt more like an oratorio and was staged on a set that bore little semblance to a cruise ship. Individual singers played several different roles, depending on text and expression rather than costumes or gesture to individualize the characters. Many of these theatrical gestures are now clichés, and they weren’t entirely new then, but they served as a kind of cultural dog whistle: anyone who made opera in this particular form must — so went the logic of suspicion — have a subversive agenda, perhaps even an anti-American or anti-Semitic agenda. 

The opera’s first two choruses, some of the most haunting music written in the past half-century, didn’t help assuage those anxieties. In the first, a group of Exiled Palestinians sings, often in long, sinuous, melismatic lines, of the loss of their houses, the trees that gave shade, the homes where they could serve “a glass of something cool” to family, friends and neighbors. In the second, a chorus of Exiled Jews sings of feeling lost, empty-handed and perhaps somewhat bewildered by the land and new country they are making in Israel. But there is a powerful musical difference between the choruses, and that difference helps trace the moral trajectory of the opera. The Palestinian chorus begins in a dream-like phantasmagoria, but as the memory of grievance becomes more powerful, it ends in a paroxysm of rage: “Our faith will take the stones he broke / and break his teeth.” 

The Jewish chorus, by contrast, remains vague and undirected, full of the detail of memory, but without the clear trajectory of anger that preceded it in the Palestinian song.

How you interpret these choruses becomes key to how you interpret the opera. Many of the work’s critics found the mix of lyricism and anger in the Palestinian music (including long parlando passages from the four terrorists later in the work) to be too seductive, essentially a humanizing musical language that romanticized or in some way justified their violence. And they found the Jewish characters (including a scene that was later dropped from the opera that depicted a family at home in America chatting, sometimes ironically, about travel) antiheroic, scattered and pallid representations bogged down in the material world.

But both musically and dramatically, there was a more powerful and more compelling interpretation — that the moral core of the opera is about the contrast between people who become lost in their anger, unable to escape it, and people for whom the “real” world of family and the quotidian world of being rooted in the body, being human, drags one out of anger and back to compassion. It is a contrast between a consuming anger and an anger that flickers and fades when brought into contact with the simple, ordinary cares and pleasures of life. The first form of anger is limned in Act I, when the hijacker Mamoud begins to recall songs he knows from the radio, sad idylls of love, then segues into memories of his childhood and the loss of family during an attack on Palestinian refugee camps. He moves inexorably from nocturne to nightmare, from vulnerability to rage, to which the captain — a curious mix of idealism and fecklessness — responds, “I think if you could talk like this sitting among your enemies / Peace would come.” 

That is the voice of the naïve artist, believing that narrative can cure everything. Anyone who believes Adams and his creative team were similarly naïve — or sympathetic to violence — should listen to Mamoud’s response: “The day that I and my enemy sit peacefully,” he sings, “that day our hope dies.” Anger is a maze from which he cannot escape. By contrast, when Leon Klinghoffer is introduced in Act II — with a self-assured orchestral mix including prominent horns — he wanders into anger and out again. He chastises the men who are humiliating him and his fellow passengers, but then he remembers his wife, his care for her, and he ends with one of the most haunting lines of the work: “I should have worn a hat.” 

Consistently, the opera brings us back to a hard, unsatisfying but potentially transformative understanding of how we relate to the larger forms of political anger and identity that cleave the world: we must allow ourselves to be distracted from them. We must open ourselves to being sidetracked and interrupted in our anger, we must chose wandering narratives of detail rather than confident, forward-driving narratives of heroism and anger.

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The chorus sings in ENO’s Klinghoffer staging, designed by Tom Pye
© Robbie Jack/Corbis 2014

Musically, this posed some of the work’s most significant challenges. Opera offers up a ready-made language to appeal to the narrative pleasures of heroism, vengeance and rage. Verdi and Wagner were masters of this, and embedded in the harmonic and melodic vocabulary of classical music is a deeply powerful ability to “stir” us. Adams, by contrast, was trying to “unstir” us, or at least contrast the reflexive power of certain kinds of musical intoxication with a more rigorously realistic, though musically static, sense of how we actually exist in the world (if we’re not seduced to megalomania or violent political ideology). He gave voice to the anger that motivates the hijackers, which humanized them on one level; he also gave voice to the complex consciousness of being embedded in the ordinary world, which humanized the opera’s victims on a far deeper level. 

Yet even that contrast is too simple. Deeply angry people, even those driven to political violence, remain human too. And being rooted in the world of family, responsibility and material things can lead to a loss of moral clarity when confronted by real evil. And the paradox is: it all comes down to place, home, land. It is the deeply local character of our lives that creates both the passionate sense of collective identity and the rich, quotidian entanglement that draws us away from violence and aggression. 

Among the more disturbing characters in the opera are the “Austrian Woman” and the “British Dancing Girl,” who embody intermediary types between Klinghoffer and the men who kill him. Their identities are essentially national caricatures, their music appropriated from existing styles: the persnickety Austrian woman uses a kind of Sprechstimme, while the British girl lapses into the melodic tags of a silly pop song. They seem not quite individuals but people locked into a type. They are neither so much in thrall to grand narratives as the hijackers nor so authentically rooted in the world as Klinghoffer, and later his grieving wife. 

Which is to say: there is a range in all things. And this is where the opera opened itself up to criticism of being, perhaps, morally relativistic and sympathetic to evil. It posits a continuity of humanity between the terrorists and their victims, a continuity sometimes heard in the way fragments of the melismatic figures from the first chorus are passed around, from character to character and, poetically, in a recurring reference to birds.

A continuity of humanity between peoples is, in fact, the only hope for peace. The Death of Klinghoffer was given its premiere at a time when the continuity in American civil discourse was beginning to fray — and the arts were emerging as a particularly contested ground in that larger dissolution of collective American identity. And it has returned at a time when it often seems we have lost the ability to have serious conversations at all. But it is, at least, returning to the opera house, which is to say to a cultural space set apart from the noise, where time passes not in the staccato bursts of rancor one hears everywhere else in American culture, but more slowly and separately. One feels a bit foolish and naïve saying that our only hope rests in works such as this one, with its mix of moral clarity and moral complexity, its multi-voiced cross-section of the species and its deep sense of sadness. Art, obviously, isn’t a magical elixir that solves the problems of politics.

Yet it seems everything else has failed. And if not art, then what? spacer 

PHILIP KENNICOTT, chief art critic of The Washington Post, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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