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Opera Out of Terrorism : Peter Sellars, John Adams and Alice Goodman, the creators of 'Nixon in China,' are at it again with 'The Death of Klinghoffer'

September 01, 1991|LINDA WINER | Linda Winer is the theater critic for Newsday

When Alice Goodman, poet and librettist in Cambridge, faxed the words of a Palestinian terrorist's aria to John Adams, composer in Berkeley, Goodman believed the lyrics were just "pretty nasty." But Adams showed them to his Jewish neighbors, who thought they were "anti-Semitic."

"John didn't think they would 'heal anything,' " Goodman said, but she refused to tone them down. "I said, 'Well, I'm Jewish and I can tell you that if you make all the Palestinians into Smurfs, the Brooklyn audience is going to rise up and lynch you.' John thought about it and decided I was right."

That time. Ask director Peter Sellars about creative tension surrounding "The Death of Klinghoffer"--the opera that has its American premiere Thursday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--and he lets loose one of his mad-happy cackles. "It was arduous. Someone could have been killed.

"Of course," he hastens to add about the team that already dared to sing about "Nixon in China," "it never actually got ugly. We respect each other as artists. But our differences are very, very real."

And that's just the way he likes it. At 33, Sellars seems relieved finally to have outrun the enfant terrible burden, but this hardly means his days are safe and cool. It was his idea, after all, to approach Adams, Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris about an opera on the 1985 hijacking of the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of wheelchair-bound passenger Leon Klinghoffer--an idea that might have seemed, for starters, to be unstageable, tasteless, unfathomable and opportunistic.

But the piece opened in Brussels in March--rehearsals and the Gulf War started at the same time; the rehearsal room, Sellars says, was "like living in a bomb zone"--and, from many reports, the results were meditative and complex, not exploitative and polemical. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" was frequently mentioned by reviewers, and Adams says he was aiming more for the feel of sacred music than grand opera. As Sellars puts it: "People began to realize this thing is genuinely not a public menace."

In fact, Opera News--published by the Metropolitan Opera, where Sellars' iconoclasm is about as welcome as soot--said the piece "marked the moment when American opera finally has achieved maturity."

Sellars says the "American press treated it very well, which was surprising and impressive to me. The British were predictably dense about it. The Germans were really split between 'Why is this happening in state-subsidized theaters?' and 'This is pretentious.' The French actually waxed poetic about it, though Liberation felt it wasn't 'left' enough."

Perhaps most striking of all are the contradictory interpretations of the opera's Middle East position. Its creators have been accused by critics and audiences of being pro-Arab and pro-Israel and--the one that really gets to Goodman--afraid to offend either side.

"With so many passionately held opinions in this collaboration," she says, "it's not about trying not to offend. It's about trying to be true to one's own belief without tearing out the throat of one's neighbor."

So here's the scoop on the politics. According to Sellars, we should expect pro-nobody. He says he was drawn to the incident because it was "so vastly overplayed for melodrama in the press and became swollen out of all proportion."

"The incident itself was not pro-anything," he says. "It was just a sad deadlock, a total tragedy where nobody comes off particularly well. It can't be seized by one side or the other.

"But it's pretty clear that the issues are on top of everyone's mind in the world. They won't go away. Obviously, America plays a large role in it, and, as Americans, we're hypersensitized to the situation. We felt that the chance to treat it in a non-sensationalist manner was very interesting--and could actually be useful."

Besides, after "Nixon in China," Sellars knew what he was getting into with his co-creators--not to mention his impressive band of loyal singers, familiar from "Nixon" and his Mozart cycle, and his longtime designer, George Tsypin.

"We enjoy coming from so many different political points of view and allowing them into the piece," the director says. "I hate when all the complexity gets ironed out in a work and it is this monolithic propaganda campaign against the audience and you're going, 'OK, OK, OK, I get it already!'

"In 'Death of Klinghoffer,' you don't get it. We don't want you to leave the theater thinking this or that. We just want you to leave the theater thinking. The audience is treated like adults. They're given something complicated and allowed to make up their own minds."

The opera, co-commissioned by a consortium of six international companies, has been in Lyon, France, and in Vienna but doesn't get to Los Angeles (as part of the Music Center Opera season) and San Francisco until the fall of 1992.

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