Opera as Mediator: The Larger Impact of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer
7 Jun 2013
The Unexpected Cadence

Opera as Mediator: The Larger Impact of John Adams’ The Death of KlinghofferBy Aaron Ball
            American composer John Adams and poet Alice Goodman’s spellbinding and powerful 1991 two-act opera The Death of Klinghoffer presents a slightly fictionalized account of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian luxury cruise liner Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt by Palestinian terrorists acting
The Achille Lauro in 1984
on orders from the Palestinian Liberation Front. The opera dramatizes the taking of hostages on the ship, the terrorists’ demands that the Israeli government release five Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, and recounts the execution by the terrorists of one of the hostages, disabled American Jew Leon Klinghoffer (on holiday with his wife Marilyn) whose body is subsequently thrown overboard along with the wheelchair to which he is bound.  The opera also provides some historical background for both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through choruses that dramatize events surrounding the 1948 Arab-Israeli War – specifically, the exodus of around 700,000 Jews from Arab lands and the expulsion of around that same number of Palestinian Arabs from their homes by Israeli military forces during the Israeli occupation, which had the effect of taking control of land previously sanctioned for Arabs by the United Nations, but afterwards claimed on behalf of the then newly-declared State of Israel.            
          John Adams is among the most important opera composers working today.  Born and raised ?????
Composer John Adams
in New England, he began composing at age ten, earned two degrees from Harvard, and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area (Earbox).  The idea for Klinghoffer was presented to Adams by his longtime friend and collaborator Peter Sellers (also Harvard-educated), a professor of World Art and Cultures at UCLA who teaches courses on Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action.  Sellers had worked with Adams and poet (also an Anglican priest) Alice Goodman on their previous opera, Nixon in China, which Sellers directed. In 1987, the three set out to develop an opera based on the then-recent events surrounding the Palestinian hijacking of the Achille Lauro and to use the incident as an opportunity to explore the backgrounds of both sides of the intensely complex political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  According to Adams, in an interview on his website, “we weren’t making an overly conscious attempt to be neutral, but on the other hand, after reading about the background it was impossible not to have strong feelings” (Beverly).  Adams goes on to explain the intense research involved in developing the opera: a thorough examination of source material such as the Old Testament, histories of the Middle East, the foundations of Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, Theodore Herzel, Edward Said, and the Koran.  Adams states that “the entire opera is about symmetries and polarities” (Earbox.).  By creating such a work – one that lends symmetry to what many Jews and Muslims have historically viewed as a completely asymmetrical and one-sided debate – the opera has the power to level the playing field between both sides of the conflict, paving the way to a better understanding of the differences in the ideology and religion that tend to divide nations and individuals, pushing them to the brink of war.  The opera has the power to serve as a springboard for philosophical debate on the merits of tolerance and understanding.  It has the power to bring peace through the possible organizations of Jewish/Muslim interfaith groups and groups dedicated to exploring cultural, artistic, and ideological differences with the purpose of finding solutions for working peacefully with one another.

            The Death of Klinghoffer saw its United States premiere on 5 September 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and almost immediately generated a firestorm of controversy.  Only weeks before the premiere, a three-day riot in the nearby Crown Heights district had resulted in the murder of a rabbinical student igniting tensions between African American and Jewish populations.  On a national level, in January of that year, shortly after Israel was hit by Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War, national sympathies for Israelis climbed to the highest in recorded history (Gallup).  These political tensions both locally and nationally were fully represented by the audience at this premiere, an audience who, according to a national survey of opera audience demographics released for the year 1992 by the National Endowment for the Arts, consisted of predominately white, college educated, middle aged suburban residents twenty-five to forty-nine years of age, over 45-percent of whom had incomes of over $50,000 (American Participation in Opera);  in other words, an affluent and influential audience well-read on issues of national and local interests.  To add fuel to an already explosive atmosphere, the performance was attended anonymously by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, who promptly denounced the opera as being anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Palestinian terrorists, and an opera that attempts to justify the murder of their father – a position they maintain to this day.  In a recent public statement by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer issued by the Anti-Defamation League upon the 2011 revival of the opera at St. Louis Opera Theatre (after an absence from the American stage of twenty years), the sisters write: “our personal grief and sensitivity to the controversy that has surrounded presentations of the opera since its premiere are not diminished by the passage of time. [. . .] The Death of Klinghoffer takes a heinous terrorist event and rationalizes, legitimizes, and explains it.  There is no way that this terrorist murder can or should be presented in a balanced manner” (Statement by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer).  Audiences tended to agree.  The political controversy lead to biased critical reviews and the opera quickly became too hot to handle, with the world-renowned Glyndebourne Festival in England and Los Angeles Opera each cancelling their planned productions of the work.  Only the San Francisco Opera (one of the commissioners of the work) carried through with its plan to present the opera the following year in 1992.  That production was met with protests staged by the Jewish Information League.  Productions of the work have been condemned in Israel as being pro-Palestinian.  Conversely, productions have been condemned elsewhere in the Middle East as being pro-Israeli.  Poet, librettist, and priest Alice Goodman, when asked by The Telegraph last year about the reason for the controversy, replied simply that it was “because the bad people in [the opera] are not entirely bad and the good people are not entirely good” (Rahim).
            The fact is that at the time Klinghoffer made its first appearance, audiences were primed at   both the local and national levels to expect black and white thematic material regarding the subject matter.  Any balance or symmetry (to use Adams’ own word) within the fabric of the narrative (and the music, for that matter) was perceived of as attracting sympathy for either side (and always the wrong side depending upon which vantage point the audience happened to take).  The opera begins with two separate chorus movements representing a prologue, the first of these being the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians;” the second being the “Chorus of Exiled Jews.”  The very first bars of music the predominately pro-Israeli audience that evening of 5 September 1991 heard were sung by a chorus representing exiled Palestinians singing “My father’s house was razed/ in nineteen forty eight/ when the Israelis passed over our street.”  Never mind that this choral movement was followed by the Chorus of Exiled Jews who sang: “When I paid off the taxi/ I had no money left/ and of course, no luggage./ My empty hands shall signify this passion, which itself remembers.”  The damage had been done.
            Another subject of contention for the first audiences of Klinghoffer was the portrayal of one of the terrorists, Mamoud, who recounts to the Captain the horrors of having grown up immersed in violence and the way his childhood history has helped shape who he is today in the aria “Now it is night:” “I used to play with guns,” Mamoud sings, “my first toy was one like this:/ a real one./ I was five, and just able to drag it and crawl over to a wall,/ prop it, fire/ smell the hot metal and the exploded round.”  He continues later: “It was not I driven away/ but my mother/ who could not remember what happened to her./ She only said there was a raid/ [. . . ] /She was killed with the old men and children in camps at Sabra and Chatila/ where Almighty God/ in His mercy showed my decapitated brother to me/ and in His mercy/ allowed me to close my brother’s eyes/ and wipe his face.”  The Captain then delivers a line that seems to drive home one of the overriding messages of the opera when he sings “I think if you could talk like this/ sitting among your enemies/ peace would come.” To which Mamoud replies “The day that I and my enemy sit peacefully,/ each putting his case and working towards peace,/ that day our hope dies/ and I shall die too.”  American audiences had already made up their minds by this point late in the second act that they were being persuaded to sympathize with terrorists.
            Though the opera was not effective in achieving any sort of balanced discussion of the conflict in the Middle East in 1991, it looked as though, ten years later, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, that this perspective of the work might change – if not for Klinghoffer, then at least for Adams.  The events of 911 motivated Adams to compose the gut-wrenchingly moving work On the Transmigration of Souls in commemoration of these attacks.  The composition won him the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2003.  Attempts were then made to revive productions of Klinghofferin light of Adams’ revived popularity; however, the events of 911 had unfortunately aroused in its wake a rather sweeping anti-Muslim attitude that lead to even more cancellations of the work and sparked a debate in the country’s leading papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, on the nature of censorship in the arts in America.
            Finally, in 2011, for the first time in nearly twenty years, The Death of Klinghoffer saw an American production at St. Louis Opera Theater directed by renowned opera director James Robinson.  What happened as a result of that production was truly remarkable.  A year before performances were scheduled to take place, Timothy O’Leary, general director of St. Louis Opera Theater, very much aware of the controversy of staging the work, began the process of involving local religious communities in the opera company’s educational discussions and programs revolving around Klinghoffer.  Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, in a Huffington Post article on the production, said that “O’Leary’s decision to involve the faith community in the educational discussions preceding Klinghoffermade ‘something that could have been a very divisive experience into something very different’” (Townsend).
            Though the opera, with its balanced approach to its subject matter and musical structure, was not initially effective in generating balanced dialogue between people with diverse cultural and theological backgrounds when it premiered in 1991, there seems now to be a shift in how the work is being percieved as American culture begins to embrace diversity and tolerance with ever-increasing frequency.  With a focus on developing and organizing community inter-faith involvement and education initiatives around future productions of Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, the opera stands a very good chance of gaining widespread recognition as one of the great operatic masterpieces of the twentieth century, not just by way of its music, poetry, and theatrics, but also by sparking important and sensitive dialogue among opera audiences everywhere for many years to come.


Baritone Aaron Ball singing Mamoud’s aria “Those Birds Flying Above Us” from John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer

Townsend, Tim.  “'The Death of Klinghoffer,' Controversial Opera and Interfaith Concert Brings People Together In St. Louis.”  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  11 Sept. 2012.  Web.  4 June 2013.
Goodman, Alice.  The Death of Klinghoffer.  Second Edition, Jan. 2009.  Composed by John Adams.  Piano reduction by John McGinn.  London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2009.  Print.
Beverly, David.  “Klinghoffer and the Art of Composing.”  John Adams., 25 Oct. 1995.  Web.  4 June 2013.
Rahim, Sameer.  “The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams and Alice Goodman.”  The Telegraph.  Telegraph Media Group, Limited, 2 Mar. 2012.  Web.  4 June 2013.
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