In 1985 the cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked in the Mediterranean by a group of armed Palestinians. The incident involved the murder of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish man. He was shot dead, and his body and wheelchair were thrown overboard.
Even though this hijack on the high seas made headline news across the world at the time, after a few years the whole affair would probably have been consigned to the history books - but for one thing. An opera was written, based on the incident and entitled The Death of Klinghoffer (music by John Adams, text or libretto by Alice Goodman).
This opera attracted considerable controversy at its world premiere (Brussels, Belgium, 1991), its US premiere (Brooklyn, New York, 1991) and has ever since. Ten years on, after the terrorist attacks on the USA of 11 September 2001, the opera has continued to ignite passions (as opera often does), especially over the cancellation of four performances of excerpts from the opera which had been scheduled for November 2001 in Boston, USA Other planned productions, notably for the opera houses of Los Angeles (USA) and Glyndebourne (UK), were also mothballed. In Los Angeles the stage sets for the production were destroyed under mysterious circumstances. The librettist, Alice Goodman, received death threats.
The opera serves to remind us of the original incident and the wider subject of terrorism and freedom fighters. It uses the hijacking incident to give us insights into the deeply-felt emotions and desires of Arabs, Jews and others. It seeks neither to condone nor to condemn, but to illuminate the political and religious divisions, as well as the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts over tradition and land and nationhood. The dynamics of the ancient Arab-Jewish conflict are examined not so much through action as through the reflections and meditations of all those who were caught up in this incident.
The same team of composer and librettist (and the director, Peter Sellars) had collaborated in a previous opera, Nixon In China. This was also based on a real-life event - the visit by US President Richard M Nixon to Chinese Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in 1972 with an entourage that included Mrs Pat Nixon and senior statesman Dr Henry Kissinger. By no means a political pageant, Nixon In China emphasises the portrayal of the main characters as real people who reflect on the political events as these impinge on their personal lives as individuals rather than as political figures.
Similarly, The Death of Klinghoffer uses the hijacking incident as a backdrop to the personal memories, reflections and desires of the various individuals caught up in it. Jews, Palestinians, and those who are neither, have been thrown together into what might be called a floating cauldron of fear, mutual distrust and power-play. The opera uses the reaction between these diverse people to explore the situation of the individual in a tense multi-cultural setting.
The opera opens with a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. The choruses in this opera have a special role, which has been compared to the role of the Chorus in the Passions of JS Bach, as commentaries on the situation. The Choruses are paired, so there is also a Chorus of Exiled Jews. There is likewise a Day Chorus and a Night Chorus, an Ocean Chorus and a Desert Chorus.
The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians opens with the women singing wistfully:
My father's house was razed
In nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis passed
Over our street.
The house was built of stone
With a courtyard inside
Where on a hot day one
Could sit in shade
Under a tree, and have
A glass of something cool.
Coolness rose like a wave
From our pure well.
No-one was turned away...
The yearning expressed here for the old way of life back home uncannily recalls the famous Va, pensiero from Verdi's opera 'Nabucco' - the chorus of the exiled Hebrew slaves as they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon; the irony here is that it is the Palestinians who are weeping. It is no doubt this kind of touch that arouses such controversy among knowledgeable well-heeled American opera audiences.
The music is sinuous and evocative, and Adams captures a Middle Eastern flavour. But later the men join in as the mood changes to reflect a desire for revenge:
Let the supplanter look
Upon his work. Our faith
take the stones he broke
And break his teeth.
The Chorus of Exiled Jews is a love song in which the return to the Land of Israel is compared to a young man returning to his lover after a long absence. He arrives penniless and dispossessed:
When I paid off the taxi I had no money left,
And of course no luggage.
He sings a love song to the Land of Israel:
O Daughter of Zion, when you lay upon my breast
I was like a soldier who lies beneath the earth of his homeland, resolved.
When his 'lust is exhausted for the day' he sees in his lover's body some of the old familiar sights of Jerusalem - the holy places, the last wall of the Temple, the Dome of the Rock, the apartments, the movie-houses picketed by Hasidim and the military barracks.
While The Death of Klinghoffer is based on historical events it does not try to treat them in a straightforward story-telling manner, so what occurs on stage is not always what we expect. A number of important events, including the murder of Klinghoffer, are not shown on stage at all, but commented on after they have occurred, or sung about as a flashback or reminiscence.
As Act I begins, the Captain (baritone) of the Achille Lauro sings an aria ('It was just after 1.15') telling the story of how the hijackers appeared on board. A large number of the passengers had gone off on a sight-seeing trip to the Pyramids, and the remaining passengers were corralled in the ship's restaurant. Another character, the Swiss Grandmother (mezzo-soprano), gives her version of events. Another version of events is then given by the ship's first officer (bass-baritone).
Molqi (tenor), the leader of the hijackers, tries to explain the situation to the bewildered passengers and to reassure them in an aria ('Give these Orders'). Another of the hijackers appears. This is the teenager, Mamoud (baritone). He seems to be much more violent and dangerous than Molqi.
The Captain muses that all ships are a sort of prison ('I have often reflected'). In contrast to this, Mamoud sings about freedom. Mamoud is the most introspective and pessimistic of the Palestinians. He tunes in to some pop music on the radio, and sings of the night, of his love of Arabic pop, and of the magical effect of music travelling across the water. He tells the story of his childhood and the death of his brother, and we and the Captain become horrified at his politico-religious fundamentalism. Effectively signing Klinghoffer's death warrant, Mamoud tells the Captain:
The day that I
And my enemy
Each putting his case
And working towards peace,
That day our hope dies
And I shall die too.
Mamoud and the Captain have spent the whole of the first night together on the bridge. At daybreak a small bird lands on the ship, and Mamoud sings of birds as a symbol of liberty ('Those birds flying'). Another passenger tells how she went into her cabin, locked the door, and remained there undiscovered throughout the whole crisis.
John Adams has said that his music for this scene with Mamoud was influenced by the music of Abed Azrié, a Syrian composer and singer whose music Adams was listening to while composing this scene.
The first Act ends with the Night Chorus, a terrifying depiction of an urban nightmare scenario, meant to represent the horrors of the pogrom:
Is not the night restless for them?
Smoke detectors and burglar alarms
Go off without reason.
The taped voice unwinds in the widow's back yard.
No one bothers to look up from his work.
I am afraid for myself...
The chorus has an unrelenting, pounding pulse from the start, and as more layers are added the music hurtles towards a stunning conclusion to the first Act.
Act II begins with the Hagar chorus ('When Hagar was led into the wilderness'), a version of the biblical story. Hagar was the Egyptian handmaiden (ie slave) of Abram's wife Sarai. She was banished together with her son by Abram, Ishmael, who was the forebear of the prophet Mohammed. This represents the original Arab-Israeli parting of the ways.
Molqi is contacting the port authorities and making demands, and is frustrated because the authorities are stalling. He is afraid people might die, and he says 'Now we will kill you all.' The situation on board, in the heat of the day, is very tense.
Klinghoffer (baritone) appears for the first time. He condemns the hijackers, and says that their ideology is simply used as a convenient excuse for what they enjoy most - killing ('I've never been/A violent man'). Another hijacker, nicknamed 'Rambo' (bass-baritone) replies in harsh terms. He has been given that nickname by the passengers because of his particularly brutal behaviour and his habit of carrying his guns and ammunition conspicuously strapped across his bare chest. The scene between Rambo and Klinghoffer is particularly unpleasant, but Rambo's cruel taunting of Klinghoffer has the uncomfortable ring of truth.
Finally another hijacker, the young Omar (mezzo-soprano, a trouser role), born and bred in a refugee camp, expresses the hope of martyrdom for the good of the cause and comes across as the type who would make a first-class volunteer for a suicide mission. The music for the end of his aria is overwhelming, and in fact John Adams has said that it 'should feel like being in a truck loaded with TNT, driving straight into a Marine barracks.'
Klinghoffer's wife Marilyn (contralto) appears. She believes that her husband has been taken off to the ship's infirmary and she sings of disability, sickness (she has cancer) and death. It is during this aria that Klinghoffer is killed, off stage, while the orchestra is making an almighty racket. The Palestinians are now saying that they will kill another passenger every fifteen minutes, and the Captain continually begs them to kill him instead and save his passengers. The body of Klinghoffer appears and is dragged slowly away wrapped in a white shroud.
It is only after the hijack situation has been resolved and the passengers have left that Marilyn is told by the Captain of her husband's death. The opera ends with her grief-stricken aria, and her lamentation fades away with the words, 'They should have killed me - I wanted to die.'
The Composer's View
John Adams feels that for opera to have relevance as an art form of the 21st Century it has to relate to and deal with the tensions and undercurrents of our lives. So The Death of Klinghoffer is not just concerned with a news item of a violent incident. It is about intolerance and injustice, both religious and social. It is about the tussle between ancient peoples over an ancient land. And it is also about infirmity and disability and sickness and death.
'Terrorism,' he says, 'is evil, and everyone who experiences it suffers immeasurably. But there are reasons why a terrorist behaves the way he or she does, and we would be foolish and self-deluding not to question why.' The opera compels us to look into the minds and souls of the Palestinians and see what might have brought them to the point of willingness to die in order to make their plight known.
In the United States The Death of Klinghoffer was always a hot potato, as Adams put it, with built-in problems. It has had a much better press and a much better public reception in Europe that it has in America.
It so happens that in the days after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 Adams was in London, recording the choruses from Klinghoffer at the Abbey Road Studios for the soundtrack of a film of the opera to be shown on British TV. He left the studio during a rehearsal break and saw a group of people clustered round a TV set looking at the horrific pictures of the collapse of the World Trade Centre. He thought to himself that under such circumstances it would be impossible to carry on with the recording schedule.
However, everyone involved, including the orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus, seemed to him to be deriving something important from the experience of recording this work (which was originally composed during the last weeks of the Gulf War) at such a time. During the recording sessions Adams (who was conducting) read out the texts to the orchestra and chorus before each scene, together with his own comments on them. He later commented that Alice Goodman's text (greatly inspired by her reading of the Koran), 'so full of wisdom and prescience, seemed to speak perfectly for the mood, and I couldn't help noticing that everyone in the room was listening with complete concentration.'
Once, at a talk he was giving, John Adams was asked the basic question of what music is, or ought to be. 'Something beautiful,' he replied, 'that tells the truth.'
Related External Pages
Read an interview with John Adams on Klinghoffer and the Art of Composing
Read about The Klinghoffer Controversy