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"The Death of Klinghoffer" at the Met Opera

Klinghoffer PalestiniansKen Howard/Metropolitan Opera

"There aren't many things left worth fighting for in this world. Art is one of them." - FoM

In his 2008 memoir, Hallelujah Junction, John Adams devotes an entire chapter to his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which he completed in 1991 just six years following the event on which it's based: the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro and the murder of retired American businessman Leon Klinghoffer. Adams writes:

"I knew that this subject would inevitably be a hot potato and likely draw us into any number of heated controversies with all sides of the Middle East conflict. But I found myself instantly drawn to the story, principally because the murder of this man, Leon Klinghoffer, possessed a strange, almost biblical feeling. On the one hand...it had the nervous, highly charged immediacy of a fast-moving media event. On the other, the man's murder, played out against a background of impassioned claims of Jews and Palestinians alike, touched a nerve that went deep into the body politic of our lives as comfortable, self-satisfied Americans."     

Adams makes no attempt to mask his view that the Palestinian cause has been under and/or misrepresented in this country, where any debate over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians over the past 60 years is often "short-circuited by charges of anti-Semitism." At the same time, Adams embraces the "unique moral status" granted to Jews by virtue of their millenia-long suffering and courage, particularly in the last century.

Point being: while Adams insists that he and librettist Alice Goodman made no deliberate attempt to be evenhanded in their approach, both sides get their due in this opera. Which has in itself proven sufficient to spark repeated outrage in the American-Jewish community at staged and concert performances of Klinghoffer over the past 23 years. In a special note inserted into the Met program, Leon Klinghoffer's daughters Lisa and Ilsa write:

"The Death of Klinghoffer presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew...Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance. Unfortunately, The Death of Klinghoffer does all this..."

When I arrived at the Met Opera last night for the third of eight planned performances of The Death of Klinghoffer, the protests were nothing like they were on opening night. But, there were a smattering of picketers holding signs that said, among other things, "THE MET OPERA GLORIFIES TERRORISM" and "OPERA JUSTIFIES ATTACKS ON AMERICA/ISRAEL/JEWS." I didn't engage with them, and from what I could tell, they seemed to be flagging in their dedication to a cause I can only call quixotic, especially given the fact that few of them have ever seen the opera, or read the libretto. (By intermission, they had all gone home.)

Fortunately, all was quiet in the house itself, which was filled to near-capacity: ticket sales for Klinghoffer have reportedly been brisk in the wake of all the media attention surrounding the protests. But, I sensed that most in the audience were there for the same reason I was: an opportunity to see arguably the best opera by this country's leading composer, staged by the world's greatest opera house. Having already seen Adams' Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China at the Met, there was no way I was going to miss this.

Klinghoffer palestinians 2Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The production, by Tom Morris, was first staged in 2012 at the English National Opera, which co-produced this Klinghoffer with the Met. Right from the outset, it was clear that Morris' staging wasn't going to pull any punches: for the opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians, the backdrop was a replica of the controversial separation barrier recently erected between Israel and the West Bank. On it was projected a date, which counted forward from 1948 - the year of Israel's declaration of statehood - to the present day. The message was clear: the issues that existed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1985, the year of the hijacking, are no less potent and intractable today, as evidenced by this little provocation that happened earlier this morning. (In a later scene, graffiti reading "FREE PALESTINE" and "WELCOME TO THE GHETTO" appeared on the wall.) David Robertson conducted both this and the subsequent Chorus of Exiled Jews with a slow, pensive pace, much more grave and ponderous than the original cast recording.  

The structure of Klinghoffer is unusual for an opera. It functions more as an oratorio, where narrative is interspersed with commentary in the form of choruses. Adams says he was inspired by Bach's Passions, with its choruses and arias accompanied by solo instruments, though stops short of referring to Klinghoffer as a Jesus figure. Things pick up a bit in the second act, climaxing with the overwhelming scene of Klinghoffer's murder, which Morris wisely allows the music to depict without an actual gunshot, accompanied by a blinding white light. 

Klinghoffer terrorists2
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Compared to Peter Sellars' highly mannered and symbolic original production, Morris' staging is far more realistic, with (extremely) loud gunfire and a life-like ship set, deisgned by Tom Pye. (Watery video projections were designed by Finn Ross.) Morris takes notable license at times, most notably by adding the character of an anonymous "Palestinian Woman" (the excellent mezzo-soprano Maya Lahayani) to sing the arias originally given to "Omar" (Jesse Kovarsky), who here becomes a speechless dancer, choreographed by Arthur Pita. This conceit wasn't completely out of left field, given that Sellars had enlisted Mark Morris' dancers as doubles for each of the singer-actors in the original production. Most veteran opreagoers I spoke with compared this production favorably to Sellars', which was criticized as being too difficult to follow, even for those familiar with current events. 

Among the remaining cast, baritone Paulo Szot stood out as the Captain, who doubles as a sort of narrator/Evangelist figure. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was riveting as Marilyn Klinghoffer, particularly in the searing final scene when she is told of her husband's murder. Klinghoffer himself was portrayed by baritone Alan Opie with fearless rage and conviction. Among the hijackers, Ryan Speedo Green was particularly intense as "Rambo", while Sean Panikkar and Aubrey Allicok managed to evoke some measure of sympathy as Molqi and Mamoud, respectively.  

It was certainly unusual to hear the Met Orchestra playing synthesizers and electric drums - along with traditional instruments - in the pit, but with Robertson's guidance, they tackled the notoriously challenging, pulse-driven score with confidence and conviction. And, credit Chours Master Donald Palumbo with effectively coaching the Met Opera Chorus through their seven pivotal choral numbers, full of tricky meters and wide-ranging crescendos.

Captain and marilyn klinghofferKen Howard/Metropolitan Opera

After Marilyn's final, withering aria, the opera ended suddenly, jarringly. The cast and orchestra all received a warm ovation, though not quite the riotous roar that greeted Adams when he came out for a curtain call on opening night. Part of that was no doubt intended to silence any detractors still remaining in the house, but from what I heard last night, Adams was wholly deserving: The Death of Klinghoffer is, at once, the most controversial opera of our time and an irrefutable masterpiece.

The Met has set up a mini-site with interviews, audio, and background information on Klinghoffer, as well as an area where audience members can share their thoughts on the production. They've even provided a link to the full libretto for those who want a more thorough exploration. But, to really understand what this opera is about, you need to see it for yourself. And, since there will be no HD broadcast, your only choice is to see it in the house. Fortunately, there are five more performances, and tickets are available for all of them. Details here.

More pics below.Klinghoffer Captain 2
Palestinian Woman and OmarKlinghoffer terroristsKlinghoffer CaptainKlinghoffer and terrorist 2Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera