Saturday Art: John Adams’ Controversial The Death of Klinghoffer Opens Today at the English National Opera
I. Derided by notable music historian Richard Taruskin in a New York Times essay famous among new music writers, as an opera that “cater[s] to so many of [Western Europeans’] favorite prejudices — anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois –” and by Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa as “exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic,” San Francisco composer John Adams‘ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, may be his greatest achievement.
Commissioned in 1989 by a consortium of five opera companies in the U.S. and Europe, some of the companies reneged when they realized the controversies the resultant opera had brought about. Since then, most of the opera’s productions have been met with combinations of demonstrations, dueling op-eds in the news, and fairly large audiences, as Adams’ music is some of the most vital now being written or played. Had the controversies and accusations surrounding this music drama been attached to a lesser composer, it would have ended any possibilities of future commissions, fellowships and awards. Fortunately, John Adams was too famous, too honest and too candid for this to have been the result. Alice Goodman, the work’s librettist, was somewhat less well-known, so wasn’t let off so easily:
Goodman and the rest of the creative team – composer Adams, director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris – had expected, and perhaps even courted, controversy. (They were, after all, following their 1987 triumph Nixon in China, another opera based on a news event, albeit a much less provocative one.) Adams had been disappointed that the world premiere weeks earlier in Brussels had been so tepidly received. The reaction in New York more than compensated: it proved a devastating shock.
“I couldn’t get work after Klinghoffer,” says Goodman. “I was uncommissionable. John was almost uncommissionable.” Adams’s next work was a violin concerto. “No words,” says Goodman. [emphasis added]
In 2001 the Boston Symphony had scheduled the Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer for its 2001-2002 season. It was cancelled:
Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a scheduled performance in November 2001 of extracts from the opera. This was partly in deference to a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who lost a family member on one of the hijacked planes, and also because of the perceived “pro-Palestinian” nature of the work. It was considered too controversial for performance at a time of heightened anti-Muslim feeling in the USA.
Although the work has had many detractors, it has also been widely lauded. Responding to a negative letter to the Juilliard journal after a 2009 concert performance of the work at one of the world’s preeminent music academies, Juilliard president, Joseph W. Pelosi responded:
The original creative team for Klinghoffer—Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, director Peter Sellars—often spoke of the opera’s structural/dramatic relationship to the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, juxtaposing narrative and commentary in complex layers. In my study of the opera, I see it functioning as a morality play rather than a through-composed narrative depicting a terrorist attack.
This “passion structure” is clearly seen in the work’s division between the various choruses and the ensuing narrative scenes. Some of Adams’s most sublime music in his entire oeuvre appears in those choruses. In addition, poetry provided by Goodman is often highly abstract and ethereal in nature. When that is not the case, as in the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians,” the language is at a level of intensity that one experiences, sadly, every day on CNN. In addition, the dialogue in the various narrative scenes, although much less abstract in nature, never moves beyond the level of language we associate with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as portrayed in the daily media.
What Adams has created is a powerful artistic entity, filled with exceptional musical craft and sensitivity, which presents a work of honesty and profound power. The opera ends with Marilyn Klinghoffer’s lament on the death of her husband, moving from rage to happy memories to deep sorrow. Her final aria embodies the tragedy of our humanity, manifesting no division between nationalities or religions. Unlike you, I do not see this work as a “justification” of an act of terrorism, but rather a profoundly perceptive and human commentary on a political/religious problem that continues to find no resolution.
Such an extraordinary work of art like this must continue to live, no matter how horrific its basic story. I respect your right to protest the opera’s topic, but Juilliard and its kindred artistic institutions have to be responsible for maintaining an environment in which challenging, as well as comforting, works of art are presented to the public.
II. The opera’s prologue is two choruses portraying dispossessed Palestinians and Jews. In 2003 BBC’s Channel 4 created a powerful movie based on the opera, directed by Penny Woolcock:
Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians:
Chorus of the Exiled Jews:
Those were two of the choruses banned in Boston in 2001. Perhaps the most compelling music in the opera is Night Chorus:
The Director of the English National Opera production which begins today is Tom Morris, who co-directed the much lauded New York City stage production of War Horse. Here he is describing some of the challenges of mounting this work:
As a composer who has also approached the Palestine-Israel conflict in my art, I can appreciate how difficult it is to satisfy everyone – it is impossible. The continuing resonance of Adams’ fascinating creation may bother militant Zionists, but for the rest of us, it might be working its way into being an enduring masterpiece of one of America’s great composers.