The Death of Klinghoffer

John Adams

Christopher Maltman, Sanford Sylvan, Yvonne Howard, London Symphony Orchestra (John Adams, cond.)

An Astounding Opera, as Fresh as the News

In the liner notes of Earbox, a ten-CD retrospective of his work, John Adams recalls that this operatic account of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship was a magnet for controversy: "The Death of Klinghoffer started eliciting opinions even before a note of it had been heard outside my studio."

The second of Adams's "docu-operas" (after Nixon in China), Klinghoffer had a difficult birth, in part because its subject reflected ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine. Leon Klinghoffer was a wheelchair-bound Jew killed during the hijacking. His murderers were Palestinians. The opera begins with two "prologues" contrasting the plight of impoverished Palestinians ("Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians") with the middle-class comfort of American Jews ("Chorus of the Exiled Jews"). From there, Adams and librettist Alice Goodman use the hijacking and the graphic murder as the springboard for extended choral meditations on war, human cruelty, and the ephemerality of life. Adams said that his models were the Passions of Bach—"grave, symbolic narrative poems supported by large chordal pillars"—and the connection is easy to hear. Though Adams's music pulsates with distinctly modern rhythms, he gives the choir deep, pondering melodies. Bach's choirs express awe over spiritual mysteries; Adams's group sings as though trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Many critics initially considered Klinghoffer a step backward from the brighter Nixon in China. Adams made changes, but still the opera wasn't performed much during the 1990s; some critics dismissed it as more a "hot topic" curio than a serious musical work. Although there are several notable audio recordings, this innovative film adaptation, shot on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, deserves credit for engendering a reappraisal of Klinghoffer. Unlike most filmed opera productions, there is no lip-synching; the characters are captured singing live, on camera. During the chorales, the screen fills with archival footage from the aftermath of World War II, and faux-archival footage that chronicles the backstories of various characters. These effects are stupendous; they simultaneously sharpen the specifics of the plot and connect this incident to the sorry cavalcade of human tragedy.

Adams was perhaps the most significant composer of the late twentieth century, and Klinghoffer helps explain why. The subject matter is volatile, but Adams completely avoids sensationalism. His music is as taut as the soundtrack of an adventure film, with moments of uneasy calm that gradually balloon into towering declarations. At times his overlapping themes achieve a powerful symbiosis: the beautiful, the terrifying, and the sorrowful, all swirled together.

Genre: Opera
Released: 2004, Philips
Key Tracks: Prologue: "Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians," Act 1: "We Are Very Sorry for You," Act 2: "I've Never Been a Violent Man"
Another Interpretation: London Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon (Kent Nagano, cond.)
Catalog Choice: Shaker Loops, The Wound Dresser, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Next Stop: Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi
Book Page: 7

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