Controversial 'Death of Klinghoffer' Opera Makes West Coast Debut

Deborah O'Grady
John Adams

Opera composer John Adams talks to THR about his opera depicting the famous 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, and criticism that it was “glamorizing terrorism.”

It’s been called the most controversial opera of our time, which may explain why The Death of Klinghoffer has been produced only a handful of times in the United States since its 1991 premiere. One of those times will be this Sunday as the Long Beach Opera presents its second and final performance of the John Adams work about the 1985 hijacking of the Italian pleasure cruiser, Achille Lauro, by Palestinian terrorists.

Composed in the wake of the crisis that claimed the life of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American, the opera was condemned by Jewish groups. The New York Times denounced it for “romanticizing terrorists”, and in the aftermath of 9/11 the Boston Symphony even canceled a performance of the opera’s chorus sections.

OPERA REVIEW: The Death of Klinghoffer

“I had an inkling that it would be controversial even before I started composing it,” Adams tells The Hollywood Reporter. After a story mentioning the opera ran on the front page of The New York Times Adams started getting angry mail from both Palestinians and Jews, each concerned about how they would be portrayed. “I had no idea that the feelings would be that deeply personal and that people would take such umbrage to the work.”

What they were taking umbrage to was a rendering of Palestinian terrorists as something other than purely evil. Adams and librettist Alice Goodman tried to portray them as they saw themselves; warriors fighting for a cause they believed in, their determination forged by childhood memories of displacement and discrimination.

“We wouldn’t have any interest in Shakespeare’s Othello or his other tragedies if his people like Iago and Richard III weren’t humanized,” counters Adams. “The criticism was by even acknowledging the humanity of these hijackers that we were turning them into Robin Hoods and glamorizing terrorism when one should not do anything but condemn it. If you did that it would be to say that there’s no motive, there’s no reason for why a 14-year-old boy or girl would strap on an explosive vest and commit suicide. There has to be a reason, there has to be a human story behind it.”

One scene that seemed to rankle critics the most was the depiction of the Rumor family, Klinghoffer’s buffoonish middle-class Jewish-American neighbor’s, and their reaction to the crisis. According to the composer it was meant to shed light on the public’s naiveté about the Middle East. But the scene drew so much negative attention that Adams finally decided to cut it.

“The problem was Alice Goodman, who was herself Jewish, she made it be a domestic comedy of a Jewish family,” Adams says about the excised scene. “That being placed between these two very serious choruses, the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the exiled Jews, seemed to be provocative and it seemed to many people to make fun of American Jewish families or even by extension the Klinghoffer family.”

It was director Peter Sellers who first suggested turning the Achille Lauro tragedy into an opera. At the time they thought of calling it Klinghoffer’s Tod, after German expressionist Georg Buchner’s famous drama Danton’s Tod, about the death of the French revolutionary.

Adams initially focused the first act on the hijacking of the ship and murder of Klinghoffer, with the second act becoming a black comedy about the aftermath and buffoonish posturing by world leaders to capitalize on the ordeal.

“But when I got Alice’s first text, which were the choruses, I realized this was a work with enormous gravitas and great psychological and poetic depth,” recalls Adams. “All the ideas of having a comic element just disappeared.”

The opening chorus, with its focus on the history between Palestinians and Jews, took Adams back to the Bible for inspiration and, by extension, the works of J.S. Bach, particularly the Passions, which had a notable influence on the composition.

Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, attended the opera’s U.S. premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music in September of 1991 and condemned it afterward, calling it “disingenuous and appalling”, and claiming that it “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to rationalize, legitimize, and explain it.”

“Of course I was upset because I felt that it was very unfair,” says Adams. “I really felt that this was a deeply thought and felt work and not in any way a piece of agitprop propaganda.”

It was ten full years before the opera would be presented again for a 2001 run in Helsinki, Finland. Not until a 2012 production by the English National Opera did it make its fully staged London debut, and it will be presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York later this year.

But until then, Adams is busy staying out of trouble with his latest composition, a violin concerto called Scheherazade.2, which he’s writing for violinist Leila Josefowicz.

“It was inspired by images of women in the world that I’ve seen in the media who’ve had to fight aback against religious and political oppression,” he explains about his new work. “So I imagined a feisty empowered Scheherazade like some of the women you see in Tahrir Square in Cairo or in Afghanistan, or even in Texas.”

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