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Seeking Answers in an Opera

Once too controversial for U.S. companies, 'The Death of Klinghoffer' is now a work of the deepest relevance thanks to its exploration of terrorism from all viewpoints.

October 07, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Serious times call for serious art, and classical music has responded. Beauty is balm, and the fervent beauty of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, for instance, has served us well in concert after concert as a national song of lamentation.

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms nurse nervous uncertainty. Their wonderfully rational music, whether it seeks to represent spiritual grandeur or simple elegance, offers us respite from the anxiety of a chaotic world.

But however valuable the soothing of wounded psyches may be, art can accomplish more. OnSept. 12, preferring answers and understanding to comfort, I put on the CD of "The Death of Klinghoffer," John Adams' opera about terrorists and their victims. Its characters are based on the Palestinians who hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and on the crew and passengers they held hostage.

Opera is often called the most irrational art form. It places us directly inside its characters' minds and hearts through compelling music, often causing us to enjoy the company of characters we might normally dislike. Adams' opera requires that we think the unthinkable.

As a profoundly disturbing meditation on the tragic death of an innocent man, "Klinghoffer" hardly supports or apologizes for terrorism. But it does require, in the way that only opera can, that we identify with the emotions that drive actions we despise. And by presenting the terrorist act from all points of view, it becomes not just a study in suffering, a painting in the simple strokes of the banality of evil, but a wrenching panoramic expression of the complex interaction of motives and actions, all against a background of the biblical imperatives that both enliven the Middle East and tear it apart.

Although paid little attention in the past few years, "Klinghoffer" can tell us a lot about why the world is the way it is today, and our neglect of it, it is now clear, has been to our detriment.

The Achille Lauro hijacking riveted the world. The terrorists shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old American Jew who used a wheelchair, and then they announced that they had thrown his body overboard.

When Adams began his opera, the image of Klinghoffer falling from the ship in his wheelchair was still fresh, and the times were charged. In the notes accompanying the Nonesuch recording, Michael Steinberg writes that Adams began it in 1989 while "the United States was lavishly supporting Saddam Hussein" and "completed it on 12 February 1991 while we were dropping 'smart bombs' down Baghdad ventilator shafts."

The premiere was held under tight security in Brussels one week after the end of the Gulf War. Controversy was inevitable, and the critical response included accusations of namby-pamby evenhandedness, of craven opportunism and of exploiting personal tragedy.

At one extreme, the opera was called a Zionist plot; at the other, Adams, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman were denounced for being unashamedly pro-Palestinian. Goodman received death threats. The U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music later in 1991 was picketed by Jewish protesters. "Give me a break!" a woman sitting next to me at BAM loudly exclaimed in response to nearly every Palestinian remark onstage.

There were certainly those who recognized in the opera a rare insight into the most troubling and destructive political and cultural division of our age. But it was an opera ahead of its time, and it wasn't long before timid companies dropped "The Death of Klinghoffer" like a hot potato. San Francisco Opera mounted the Sellars production in 1992, but Los Angeles Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, both part of the consortium of "Klinghoffer" commissioners, never did.

In a curious twist of fate, a renewed surge of interest in the opera has already begun in Europe. In February, the Finnish National Opera mounted a production by the British TV director Tony Palmer. Concert performances were scheduled in Amsterdam later this month and in London next January. Meanwhile, an avant-garde British stage and film director, Penny Woolcock, decided to make a film of the opera for British TV. On Sept. 11, as the airliners were flying into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Adams was in London rehearsing the singers in "Klinghoffer" for a soundtrack recording for that film. Neither he nor any of the other artists wanted to comment.

In the wake of Sept. 11, "Klinghoffer" shocks with inescapable, prescient power, even in an almost silly aria, a bit of mild comic relief sung by a passenger, a character called British Dancing Girl. She is accompanied by a snappy Minimalist version of '60s bubble-gum rock as she distinguishes between two of the terrorists--the dreamy, poetic Omar, who "kept us in ciggies the whole time" and the brutal Rambo, who slaps the hostages around. Actually, she observes, men like that aren't capable of much:

You watch out for the type

Who looks as if he wouldn't fight

If he were paid.

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