The Death of Klinghoffer

opera in two acts (1990-91)
libretto by Alice Goodman
concept & original stage production by Peter Sellars

“…a Mediterranean sun blazing in the sky, an old man in a wheelchair on deck, a young man inching forward with a gun. Most haunting was the moment when the terrorists depart: they walk off the stage and trudge up the aisle, exposed under a harsh spotlight, and stripped of whatever glamour they had acquired in their minds.” Alex Ross in The New Yorker

On The Death Of Klinghoffer

Even before Nixon in China was off the ground, Peter Sellars had another idea, an opera also drawn from a recent news event but which would be as tragic and elegiac in tone as Nixon was celebratory and ironic. The story was of the 1984 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and their eventual murdering of one of the passengers, a retired, wheelchair-bound American Jew named Leon Klinghoffer.

Alice Goodman’s second libretto was disturbing for many, not only because the clarity and simplicity of her Nixon in China libretto had given way to a rhythm and utterance that echoed in density and depth the Koran and the Old Testament, but also because in her text, she gave voice to the sufferings of both Jews and Palestinians. The very words of the Exiled Palestinians that open the opera were to some listeners not a simple statement of fact, but rather a provocation.

My father’s house was razed
In nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis
Passed over our street

The Nixon/Mao encounter, puffed up and media-driven as it was, lent itself perfectly to a parody in the Verdian verismo style. The models for The Death of Klinghoffer , on the other hand, were the Bach Passions: grave, symbolic, narrative poems, supported by large choral pillars. The hijacking itself is portrayed in all its terror and pandemonium. Then follows a long, ruminative scene, a nocturnal dialogue worthy of a Joseph Conrad tale, during which one of the terrorists, Mamoud, has a long dialogue with the ship captain, recounting his childhood in a refugee camp and the violence that has permeated his every waking moment.

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The second act opens with a choral retelling of the story of Hagar and the Angel, which in the original production became the source for one of Mark Morris’s most brilliant choreographic narratives. Then follows the rapid unraveling of the terrorists plans and the inexplicable decision to execute Klinghoffer. No one knows why this particular man was singled out for execution. Was he simply a sacrificial lamb in a terrorist scenario gone awry? Had he, through some exchange of words, prompted his own demise? Or was he, simply because of his handicap, an encumbrance? In a scene for Leon Klinghoffer and the terrorist whom all the hostages dubbed “Rambo” the desperation of a conflict that refuses to be healed is summed up in a blistering exchange of accusations, vicious cliché, and degradation.

The Death of Klinghoffer opened in Brussels in March of 1991, just as the Gulf War was winding down. Like the Nixon in China premiere, it attracted an inordinate amount of press, but the actual response to the performances was muted, possibly let down by the fact that the work itself, far from being a graphic exploitations of a terrorist episode, turned out to be a ceremony of almost Attic formality, complete with choreography and highly ritualized physical gestures. It was a difficult work, complex and emotionally wrenching, and its reception and appreciation was further compromised by the highly charged nature of its subject. When the opera reached the U.S. in the autumn of 1991, the public response was extreme. More than a few reviews ridiculed its political “naïveté,” and almost all found significant fault with its artistic merit.  When The Death of Klinghoffer played six performances at the San Francisco Opera in the fall of 1992 each performance was picketed by a Jewish information group who also wrote letters of condemnation to the local press. Shortly after, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, one of the work’s co-commissioners, cancelled its planned series of performances without any explanation. For over twenty years “Klinghoffer” was seldom produced in the U.S., although several European opera houses took it on. In 2012 Opera Theater of St.Louis presented a version directed by James Robertson.

Three years later, in 2014, the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Tom Morris’s production caused a controversy that lasted for four months. Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, demanded that the planned international telecast of “Klinghoffer” be cancelled. Foxman conceded that the opera was not anti-Semitic, but nonetheless cautioned that it may inflame such sentiments in other parts of the world and therefor should not be seen outside of New York City. The Met’s general director, Peter Gelb, acceded to this demand in exchange for which the rest of the production could go forward without the League’s objection. The New York Times Editorial Page twice published pieces in support of the opera and the Met’s decision to produce it. Opening night of the Met production was accompanied by protests outside and inside the building.

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The performance, conducted by David Robertson, had to be stopped once during the opening chorus. The opening night audience included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Those condemning the work included former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani and Michelle Bachmann.