The Metropolitan Opera: The Death of Klinghoffer

Ironically, back when we first saw The Death of Klinghoffer, the controversial opera on the 1985 hijacking of an Italian ship by four young Palestinian men and their murder of an elderly disabled Jewish American man who’d had nothing to do with Israel, on the Met’s HD broadcast schedule, my family wasn’t sure we’d even bother with it.  We’d seen Nixon in China and thought it all very well(although the clash of the real and surreal made it a bit odd as an opera), except that the dissonance-based score was headache-inducing.  But when certain people bullied the Met into taking it off the schedule, and my mom and I decided to weekend in New York, we decided what the hell, go see in person the opera certain people were trying to keep from us, and even booked our seats for the matinee show yesterday which would’ve been the transmitted performance, and instead ultimately became the final one.  So I have now seen the Met in person, discovered while box seats have their fun points they all have their disadvantage when it comes to the angles, and discovered that between his freshman and his sophomore work, John Adams showed himself to have a very definite modus operandi, and also as a pure composer reached a whole new level of achievement.  Also, even though I felt a headache coming on moments before curtain, between when the music started and the curtain call I noticed no pain at all-though that might have simply been how absorbing the opera was.

Like Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer is made a bit odd by its format; reenactments of real life events(with artistic liberties) are juxtaposed with two randomly appearing choruses of the Exiled Palestinians and the Exiled Jews.  Although this in itself is a change from Adams’ first work, which only had one chorus.  And it proved to be a smart one, if only because Adams in Klinghoffer showed himself to be a master at writing choral numbers.  He uses dissonance, yes, but that’s not all he uses; there are moments of harmony, moments of beauty, moments of ugliness, moments of slow contemplation and fast-acting rage, all mixed into seven numbers(although the last is sung by the passengers rather than any Exiles) that form their own comparing and contrasting pattern with each other.  They also serve to establish the broader picture of the clash between Israel and Palestine in which the events of the opera take place, emphasizing the length of time it’s gone on with still no end in sight, allowing the scenes on the ship to focus on the intimate and very human portrait of the hijackers(although one of them gets only very limited attention), the captain, the Klinghoffers, and three more passengers who experienced the hijacking in very different ways, one of them based off another real person who managed to hide in her cabin and remain undiscovered by the hijackers.

Although some no doubt objected to the choruses of Palestinians daring to profess their woes, the portrayal of the first as people seems to be one of the biggest sticking point to those protesting the opera: humans don’t like when they can’t write off those who do terrible things as monsters(and powerful people, of course, like it even less, unless they’re the ones doing them).  Although at least one of the four hijacking characters created for the opera(the names were made up, and there seemed to really be no attempt to base them off the actual four), isn’t far off, showing prejudice and brutality that makes Klinghoffer seem right when he accuses him of just using the Palestinian cause as an excuse for his violence without really caring about it-but even he raises the legitimate point of our world of the haves and have nots, albeit in a way that leaves us with little sympathy for him.  However, Klinghoffer, though portrayed as a basically good man and tragic victim of other people’s brutality, is also shown to be wrong at least about Omar, the one of the four who actually does the killing, the youngest of them who really does believe in his cause and wants to die for it.  Left more ambiguous is the leader, Mahmoud, whose love of music and nature is put in contrast with his dedication to fighting and refusal to bend, which itself is put contrast with the Italian captain, who expresses a Catholic-based rejection of violence and political naivite.    The captain, by the way, is actually the opera lead.  He’s the narrator, the most developed character, and the one who in the end is shown doing what he must keep the people on his ship alive.

But perhaps what the protesters really object to is that in terms of the Aristotelian tragic hero, Omar qualifies in spades.  We don’t like to remember these days that tragic heroes, like Macbeth, are supposed to do terrible, unforgivable things without being wholly evil.  Omar commits such an act of murder, in the process turning people against his cause-and Adams even more or less says this through his captain, when he tells the hijackers they lost when they killed.  He also illustrates it in the final scene, when one sees exactly what the hijacking, which completely failed to manage its stated goal of getting Palestinian prisoners released, instead accomplished: it destroyed the world of now newly widowed and fatally cancer-stricken Marilyn Klinghoffer.  Outside the choruses, Adams does his best work in this opera in her final aria, which as well as searing grief contains an understandable but blind rage at the captain for supposedly making nice with the terrorists, a rage that in real life now lives in her daughters, who have denounced Adams’ opera largely on those grounds.

So while the concoction of striking choruses and emotional individual portraits occasionally are jarring when the switch between them is made, emotionally it is still a very powerful opera.  For the most part the production did a good job presenting all the opera’s elements on stage, as did the singers who starred in it, although another thing I discovered yesterday is that listening to opera singers on screen with speakers blaring their voices and listening to them in person can be very different; less sound power, although sometimes more emotion.  One interesting thing they did was cast a male(and Jewish) dancer as Omar, who is usually a pants part, and had him express himself entirely through dancing and through others around him; they brought him onstage for the closing chorus of Act I, and also had a random Palestinian woman sing over him an aria I’m pretty sure was originally written for the soprano portraying the character to sing herself.

It is a pity the Met has been driven to end their staging of this opera, and may never have it again.  But as their production was actually a co-production with the English National Opera, and the opera has seen some success in Europe, at least it’s not the end of the line for it completely.

10 thoughts on “The Metropolitan Opera: The Death of Klinghoffer

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  2. I’m not sure Klinghoffer was made into a tragic figure: his talk was one of ignorance; he simply seemed unaware the Palestinians might have a legitimate grievance. His language was crude — he was a believable character as was his wife and the British dancer, and the Palestinians too who I felt a great deal of sympathy for. I do remember Dad being unsure if he wanted to go, not that impressed with Nixon in China after all.

  3. Thanks for this review. As I have not seen the opera, this is the only way to learn about it. Naturally, I find it ironic that people who deplore the kind of one-note mind-control and violence characterized by religious fanatics would try to enact censorship against liberal thinking, liberal thinking defined as allowing multiple perspectives and voices–heteroglossia, if we will. Adams sounds as if he is doing what great artists should do–he examines a tragic event on multiple levels–political, personal–and from multiple povs. This, not censorship, is how to combat fundamentalism. Insisting on demonizing the other side is as bad as insisting on demonizing Jews. I hope the opera will be staged again.

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