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'Death of Klinghoffer' challenges Opera Theatre

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2011 - "The Death of Klinghoffer," opening June 15 at Opera Theatre St. Louis, was composed by the nation's most respected living opera composer, John Adams, and written by poet-librettist Alice Goodman. But this 1987 opera has been largely neglected as a stage piece -- though choral pieces have been sung to ravishing reviews.

One reason is the controversy over the perception of leniency toward terrorists. The opera's seven choruses make up about 30 percent of the opera. Like a spoken chorus in a Greek tragedy, the choral work provides reflection, context and background to the very real and unspeakably tragic story of the murder of an American Jew by terrorists aboard a cruise ship.

Opera Theatre's general director Tim O'Leary, its music director Stephen Lord and its artistic director James Robinson believe "Klinghoffer" is deeply moving. Backed by the unanimous consent of OTSL's board, the three leaders determined that Adams' opera deserves a second chance to enter the standard opera repertory. Its shimmering music and poetic lyrics have been shelved too long, they say.

"Presenting this is true to the tradition of Opera Theatre St. Louis from its beginning," said O'Leary. "Our duty ... is to create both beauty and community. We are doing that with this opera."

Until Robinson and OTSL gave Adams' first opera, "Nixon in China," its second major production in 2004, it also had been collecting dust on the shelf. The OTSL "Nixon" production then was done by several opera companies here and in Canada. Last winter, the Metropolitan Opera staged its own production.

"Adams' music is not scary," said Amy Kaiser, St. Louis Symphony chorus director, in a talk in April. She called much of his work "ravishingly beautiful." This opera is "an unmistakable tour de force," she said. This new production has something special going for it, Kaiser said. "Nobody knows how to play Adams' music better than our orchestra."

As with all OTSL productions, the pit musicians are St. Louis Symphony Orchestra players.

In the opera, "there is a whisper of pulse and, then suddenly within five seconds, a melody soars above," said conductor Michael Christie. He returns to St. Louis after conducting American composer John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles" at OTSL two years ago. Christie termed "Klinghoffer" a "post-minimalist" composition.

"The essence of (the 'Klinghoffer') music is incredible human melodies and undulations," conductor Christie said.

Adams has said that, in writing the music, he was inspired by Bach's choral masterpiece "St. Matthew's Passion" rather than a typical opera.

Based on a True Tragedy

When addressing the cast and chorus on their first day of rehearsal, O'Leary said of this opera: "It is so beautiful and devastating and sad."

Like so many transformational operas and dramas, "The Death of Klinghoffer" is a tragedy. Audiences contemplate that terrible things can happen randomly to any of us.

The story is a pared-down account of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship MS Achille Lauro. The ship was in Egypt on the start of its 12-day Mediterranean cruise when four terrorists hijacked it. To release the passengers, the terrorists demanded that 50 Palestinians in Israeli prisons be freed. Then, they forced the captain to sail to Syria.

Many of the ship's 580 cruise passengers were on a shore excursion to the Pyramids when the terrorists snuck on board. The 80 passengers who skipped that tour included the elderly and infirm. Among the 12 remaining Americans passengers were Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, a New Jersey couple celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary. Stroke survivor Leon Klinghoffer, a retired appliance manufacturer, 69, used a wheelchair. Marilyn Windwher Klinghoffer was weakened by terminal colon cancer.

President Ronald Reagan and Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi refused to negotiate a swap of prisoners for cruise ship hostages and persuaded Syrian leaders to bar the hijacked cruise ship from its waters. A terrorist responded by fatally shooting Klinghoffer.

The opera ends after the terrorists negotiated an escape from the ship. Once back in command, the Italian captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her beloved husband has been murdered.

Opera Overwhelms O'leary

In December 2003, Tim O'Leary casually went to see a concert version of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"I was so moved by (the opera's) beauty and power," O'Leary recalled. "The audience all came out with such positive reactions. Only afterward did I learn that some called it controversial."

He was surprised when he learned that, 12 years before at its opening, some had objected to having "singing terrorists" and said that the story glorified terrorists.

"In no way does the opera glorify terrorism," he said. "The opera was not controversial to that post-9/11 audience of New Yorkers. No one can leave the opera without seeing that the heroes of the opera are Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer. I think it is an American masterpiece."

In the opera's initial 1987 production, some Jewish leaders were offended by two fictional New Jersey neighbors, because they saw them as stereotypical Jews. Adams removed those characters.

Robinson told the cast at its first rehearsal a month ago that he was "thrilled" to direct the opera which he considered "a terribly misunderstood piece."

In May, Robinson told a couple hundred opera buffs at a "Spotlight on Opera" panel discussion that no one complained when Mao sang in Adams-Goodman's "Nixon in China." Mao and his wife were responsible for the death of 40 million Chinese.

Singing is how opera characters communicate; music allows singers to reveal an emotional depth when words fail. Singing opera monsters include Lady Macbeth, Otello, Don Giovanni and even the devil. In the voices of great musicians, music can reveal the darkest human emotions.

Goodman, a poet as well as librettist, researched the hijacking. However, all involved stress that the opera is not meant to be a news report. Her poetic imagination found the essence of the story and tried to make it universal.

The opera has no overture. Instead it begins with twined choruses, each exactly 8 minutes long. First, a chorus of exiled Palestinians tells their history relating to the land and then a chorus of exiled Jews adds historical context for the same land.

"The opera begs us to look at all sides of the story, but it does not force any opinion on the audience," Robinson told his cast a month ago. "But the audience certainly sees the murder as senseless."

Some Americans objected to both sides of the conflict being shown. The opening line of the opera sung by the exiled Palestinians chorus is: "My father's house was razed in 1948, when Israelis passed over our street."

The "Klinghoffer" cast and the chorus of 32 young singers, most in their 20s, have been rehearsing Adams' challenging music, which calls for varied pitches. But they need no coaching in understanding the fear of random terrorism.

"Unfortunately, our cast comes with great experience about terrorism and extremism in our world," Robinson said. Their high school and college years were in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said.

Goodman's research also sent her to Biblical and Jewish ritual texts, which she echoes in several pieces. Just after Leon Klinghoffer's death she has his soul sing a prayerful and beautiful aria that echoes the blessing that Jews say when they get the news of a death. Her lyrics begin "May the Lord God and his creation be magnified, be magnified in dissolution" and parallel the Jewish ritual words "Barukh atah Adonai" ("Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe").

All but one of the choruses come in pairs, the lone one is "Hagar and the Angel." From the Genesis account, the chorus sings how Abraham's second wife Hagar and her son Ishmael were forced into the desert by Abraham at the insistence of his wife Sarah. The long-barren Sarah gave birth to their first child Isaac and she did not want to share his father's legacy with Ishmael. Poet Goodman took the liberty of making the 14-year-old Ishmael an infant. The chorus lyrics tell of how the mother and son nearly died for lack of water until an angel "struck open an abandoned well." Jews, Christians and Muslims all considered themselves children of Abraham. Muslims claim that Mohammed was Ishmael's descendent.

Goodman's interest in the Bible was not casual. Raised a Reform Jew in Minnesota, she obtained a MA from Boston University School of Theology after graduating from Harvard College with Adams. Eventually she was baptized as an Anglican. She started on a third opera with Adams -- which became his "Dr. Atomic." Then, after a year she resigned from that project. She has not written another opera. She was ordained an Anglican priest and now, married to a British poet, she's a chaplain at Trinity College in Cambridge, England.

Goodman gives Klinghoffer words to stand up verbally against violence in his first aria. He describes himself as a good person "who'd just as soon avoid trouble but somebody's got to tell you the truth. We are the kind of people you like to kill. Was it your pal who shot that little girl in the airport in Rome? There is so much anger in you and hate."

His lyrics refer to Natasha Simpson, 11, who was randomly and fatally shot at Leonardo di Vinci airport on Dec. 28, 1985. She was the daughter of two respected colleagues Victor Simpson, the Associated Press Rome news editor, and Daniela Petriff Simpson, also an AP reporter.

"Leon and Marilyn could be any of us," said Robinson.

Bach-like 'duets' for Voice and Instrument

The opera has few duets for two voices. Instead, like the Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion" that inspired him, Adams often pairs a voice with a solo instrument. The terrorist Mamood's aria is a duet with his voice and that symbol of doom, the bassoon. The captain reflects on his duty as host and security chief of the floating pleasure palace as terrorists defile it in a duet with a solo violin.

In the opera's final scene when the captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband has been killed, she sings in shock that she had heard gunfire. A chorus also responds to those words of gunfire chanting a variation of the word "No" -- an elemental, childlike repetitive "No-wa." The chorus repeats the sound pulse-like 73 times as Marilyn continues to sing.

Recently Adams re-orchestrated the opera for a smaller orchestra. His new performance version will have its world premiere in St. Louis. The Worchester, Mass. native will attend its St. Louis opening night.

Wednesday the eyes of the opera world will focus on this second chance for "Death of Klinghoffer." Opera company managers from across the nation, critics and Adams music lovers are joining St. Louisans to see the new production in the next couple weeks. Many say Robinson's staging for "Nixon in China" made it accessible. Can Robinson resuscitate this Adams opera? Will the post-9/11 audience be more accepting? Will it join "Dr. Atomic" and "Nixon in China" and become part of the standard repertory?

Should it?

More Information

Conductor | Michael Christie

Stage Director | James Robinson

Set designer | Allen Moyer

Costume Designer | James Schuette

Lighting Designer | Christopher Akerlind

Sound Designer | Mark Grey

Choreographer | Sean Curran

Chorus Master | R. Robert AinsleyCast

Captain | Christopher Magiera

Mamoud | Aubrey Allicock

Leon Klinghoffer | Brian Mulligan

Marilyn Klinghoffer | Nancy Maultsby

Officer/Rambo | Paul La Rosa

Grandmother/Austrian Woman/British Dancer | Lucy Schaufer

Molqi | Matthew DiBattista

Omar | Laura Wilde

Patricia Rice, a St. Louis freelance journalist, has long written about opera.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.