John Adams is home from the wars. A veteran of art's most grueling campaign--the creation of a contemporary opera--he has a wound to show for it: tendinitis in his right shoulder. He hurt himself by composing for more than 18 months, seven days a week, hour after hour, writing with pencil, 30 lines to the page, in a narrow upstairs room crowded with a grand piano, a bank of synthesizers, several samplers, a word processor, a printer and a tape recorder.
"I'm not sure I'll be able to conduct for several months," says Adams, who is sprawled on a chair in the tiny living room of his modest Berkeley home. He rolls his right shoulder like a sore-armed pitcher. "I've got some bad habits. I'm 44, and my body isn't as supple as it used to be, and I write for eight hours a day and I don't stand up and I don't stretch and now I hurt myself."
The hurt was worth it. "The Death of Klinghoffer," his second ambitious opera in four years, recently premiered in Brussels. Most modern operas tend to vanish into recording history soon after an unveiling. Yet despite its controversial subject--the infamous 1986 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinians and the murder of an elderly Jewish-American, Leon Klinghoffer, a tourist confined to a wheelchair--Adams' opera is in the middle of an international run of performances that includes Brussels, France's Lyon Opera and Vienna and will conclude 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Next year will witness a staging by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera and a production at the San Francisco Opera. Seated near the 1989 Grammy award for his earlier opera, "Nixon in China," Adams can't even recuperate in peace. There are too many troubles on the home front. His Honda was stolen. His wife, Deborah O'Grady, is at the bank trying to resolve complications so that the family can move into a bigger Berkeley home with substantially more studio space. On this morning, his son Sam woke up ill. The family's dog, a beagle named Flora, races crazily through the house in pursuit of imagined demons. And the telephone won't stop ringing.
Adams' prematurely gray hair looks wind-swept, and he blinks through spectacles as if preoccupied, looking every bit the part of an absent-minded, longhaired composer. But his Harvard-trained intellect is anything but absent. Jet-lagged? Yes. Burned-out? Maybe. Absent? Hardly. Adams is down-to-earth, his natural New England severity mellowed by two decades of California life into a laid-back graciousness. Even after having been hounded in Europe like a superstar during the "Klinghoffer" run, Adams remains cordial and articulate, speaking in complex sentences in a gentle sing-song cadence that pulsates like the waves of sound in his quasi-minimalist compositions.
He's concerned that those who haven't seen "Klinghoffer" might denounce it as anti-Semitic, anti-Arabic and/or pro-terrorist. Adams scans yet another newspaper article on the premiere, sighing wearily. "This is so weird. This writer quotes me at a press conference as asking: 'What else does America export except smart bombs?' What I said was: 'I'm glad that there's an opportunity for people to see something from America besides our bombs and machismo.' "
The Gulf War remains very much on Adams' mind. "Klinghoffer" ritually examines centuries-old religious conflicts among Arabs, Jews and Christians. Unlike "Nixon," which dealt ironically with the historic Beijing meeting between Chairman Mao and the former President, "Klinghoffer" is more stylized and ritualistic, modeled on Bach's "St. Matthew" Passion. Adams views the murder of Klinghoffer as "a ritualized crucifixion." The gospel according to Adams is that Klinghoffer, like Christ and other indiscriminate victims through the ages, was an innocent who died for the sins of all. The God beseeched is the one God of Abraham and Islam. "People were very confused and disoriented," he says, "because they expected a 'Nixon in China.' "