The Death of Klinghoffer

When a media circus gathers around a performance, or a film,or an artwork, the eventual performance ofte n fails to equal the furor that preceded it. “That’s it?” someone ends up asking. But the opposite happened at The Death of Klinghoffer: the protest was zealous but the work emerged wiser and braver than I thought it would be. This was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen at the Met, almost a tinderbox. But the opera itself, despite its unevenness and a production which, in some respects, troubled me, is far more than invective.

John Adams and Alice Goodman,
The Death of Klinghoffer. Metropolitan Opera, 10/20/2014 (new production premiere). Conducted by David Robertson, production by Tom Morris with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, lighting by Jean Kalman, video by Finn Ross, sound by Mark Grey and choreography by Arthur Pita. Wit Paulo Szot (Captain), Alan Opie (Klinghoffer), Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer), sean Panikkar (Molqi), Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Jess Kovarsky (Omar), Ryan Speedo Green (“Rambo”), Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman)

I don’t think I can say anything new about this work (which just in case you haven’t been keeping up is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent death of the American Leon Klinghoffer at the hands of the hijackers). Much has been written about since its premiere. But I can offer some perspective based on what I saw last night. Please forgive me if the result is scattered; I’d rather write this quickly.


I saw some of the protest beforehand, though not every speech. It was organized by local conservative Jewish groups and was big enough to make the front page of every one of the major New York papers as well as the free ones you get in the subway. What I
saw was a sequence of local politicians, including some fairly well known ones, offering angry condemnations without the substance of any evidence from the opera itself, incongruously tempered by the occasional disclaimer that they respect freedom of speech so don’t accuse them of calling for censorship. The opera was repeatedly described as terrorist propaganda—the opera, mind you. No one ever said John Adams or Alice Goodman were promoting terrorism when they wrote it, they were careful about that. But one wonders how the opera did it all by itself.
This is starkly different from the criticism of the 1991 New York premiere, described in Robert Fink’s essential article. The earlier protest was led by mainstream music critics and grounded in claims about the text, as was Richard Taruskin’s infamous 2001 condemnation. You can argue these writers were mistaken or misread the opera or quoted selectively—indeed, I would argue just that—but they did make specific reference to it. (I recommend Phil Gentry’s post on these issues.) Yesterday’s protestors seemed to feel no need to justify
their condemnations with any evidence, which gave their rhetoric a circular quality. This opera promotes terrorism because it promotes terrorism. Depiction of an crime onstage
is, according to these protests, tantamount to endorsement of that crime. (As my friend said, “have they ever seen Law & Order?” As the front page of today’s New York Post said, “MURDER AT THE MET!”)
There could have been a conversation about this, and I think it’s sad that the protestors showed so little interest in anything beyond their slogans. Gelb has not helped. When the
complaint is one of morality, a response of “many consider it Adams’s greatest work!” does not constitute an answer.
Along the entrances to Lincoln Center’s plaza, protests were more heated. I was told I was despicable and should be ashamed, multiple times. Protestors further invaded the performance itself. The most prolonged interruption was a single person chanting shortly after the hijacking scene, there were scattered boos and obscenities elsewhere.
The actual opera is a more complex, more elusive text than any of this year’s protests captured. It’s a reflective, meditative work whose presentational style owes a great deal to the Passions of Bach. Some of the drama is acted out “live,” many sections are narrated from an unspecified remove. Choruses are interspersed, singing texts on allegorical or, sometimes, more directly
historical themes. The libretto itself is poetic, elusive, and complex. Despite an action movie plot (indeed, this event was made into two actual action movies), it unfolds slowly and methodically. Adams’s tranquil music builds up into block-like climaxes, or abruptly shatters into chaos. There are mundane moments (Marilyn Klinghoffer’s description of her health issues) and trivial ones (the bubbly and naïve British Dancing Girl), familiar to anyone who heard about Leslie Groves’s diet in Doctor Atomic. Some of these lulls seem intentional, others don’t and it is unclear why they are there at all. It’s an uneven piece, though in the end very powerful.
For the protest’s purposes—if they were interested in the text—the depiction of the ship-hijacking terrorists is key. (Fink, however, argues that in 1991 the problem was not so much the depiction of the terrorists so much as the depiction of the American Jews, particularly in a scene which has since been cut.) The terrorists are depicted as aimless, frustrated, idealistic, but their actions are also unreservedly described as evil. That’s not an overstatement. Adams and Goodman give Marilyn Klinghoffer the last word, in a long speech. She mourns her husband and condemns the world’s inaction (“If a hundred/People were murdered/And their blood/Flowed in the wake/Of this ship like/Oil, only then/Would the world intervene.”) Klinghoffer himself has an elegiac exit. The terrorists, in contrast, are mostly given broken, jagged, ugly music (with a strong touch of the melismatic exoticism conventional given to racial others). This is not particularly ambiguous, though it is also not simple. The issues at hand aren’t simple either.

From what I have read about the opera’s original Peter Sellars production, it was not realistic. The opera weaves together different orders of time, and the passion play suggests something other than literal representation. In 2004, Penny Woolcock’s film version of the opera is grittier, making much of the music a soundtrack to documentary-like images (I have put a video of one of the choruses from this film at the end of this post). Tom Morris’s production for the Met seems to take its cue more from Woolcock than Sellars. In Tom Pye’s set, looming walls serve as projection screens; the ship is suggested with a few railings.The narrated, past tense sections are told as if at a memorial event; the action is depicted realistically. Projected titles supply times, dates, and facts about the hijacking (even beginning before the performance and continuing during intermission), giving the entire thing a CNN or Dateline feel. This is an uneasy fit for the more abstract material of the choruses, performed before projected images and utilizing a variety of symbols, including a green flag (substituting for the real Palestinian flag) and, at one point, what looked like two crucifixions (?).

The choruses are extensively choreographed (by Arthur Pita), though this is mostly kept to those depicting the Palestinians. They are given a series of writhing, violent gestures which seem appropriate to the music’s motion but also are foreign to the rest of the production. (This is first seen at length in the Night chorus, then later in the Desert Chorus.) Additionally, Morris has modified the role of Omar, originally written for a mezzo. Here, the role is performed by a male dancer, who dances in the same style while a woman in an abaya sings behind him, apparently putting the thoughts in his head.
Omar and Woman
This choreography creates an association between the Palestinians and the body: they express themselves through extreme,
uncontrolled motion in a way which the Jews do not. Particularly in a way which the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, the opera’s central Jewish character, cannot. I don’t like this; it seems to establish a binary which is cheaper and less complex than the libretto or music, and plays into a number of old exotic stereotypes. I think that the director felt the need for a stage motion expressing the frantic energy of the score, but I’m not entirely sure if he needed one. Or maybe not this one.
From my seat, the Prologue and Act I’s choruses seemed somewhat underpowered, as did the soloists at times. Adams’s operas are generally amplified (though this is not done in an obvious way) and I wondered if they were tinkering with the mix, because things seemed better after intermission. David Robertson conducted, and must have nerves of steel; he kept going through all the short interruptions and must have never known what could happen any second (not that any of the rest of us did, but we weren’t in charge). The orchestra sounded absolutely terrific and the synthesizers seem appropriate for the piece rather than just retro.

This is not really a singers’ opera or one with many star opportunities, but the cast is excellent. As Marilyn, Michaela Martens’s final monologue was sung with raw sincerity and some beautiful rich low notes. Paulo Szot is a really excellent physical actor who almost never lapses into operatic cliché, and sung the text very clearly (though the voice itself was somewhat monochromatic). Alan Opie made Klinghoffer a three-dimensional character even given the small amount of singing he had to do. As the terrorists, Sean Panikkar, Aubrey Allicock, Ryan Speedo Green, and Jesse Kovarsky (as the voiceless Omar) must not have had an easy task, nor did they have the most rewarding music, but all sang with convincing conviction. As Omar’s singing voice, Maya Lahyani showed an intriguingly grainy, cutting mezzo.

I’m not sure if the subsequent performances will seem as electric as this one. This danger must be horrible for everyone
performing. But I highly recommend you go see this for yourself if you can, with or without protests. The protests are not, it turns out, the central attraction.Production photos copyright Ken Howard/Met
Curtain call with Adams (second from right)

Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians, from the Penny Woolcock film:

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  1. I've been thinking a lot about the protests (which of course have not just been orchestrated by conservative American Jews but by the settler movement in Israel). I don't think they are about "terrorism"; its endorsement or sympathetic portrayal. I think DoK's real the eyes of the protestors, is that it treats Palestinians as human too. That goes against the hegemonic Middle east "My Israel right or wrong" narrative in the US that treats Israeli actions against the Palestinians as if they were something happening to "other than people" like, maybe, a badger cull. Focussing the conversation on terrorism or spurious accusations of anti-Semitism once again drowns out the real question; how is justice and peace to be achieved in Israel and the Occupied Territories?

    Disclaimer. I haven't seen the Met production. I have seen the Woolcock film.

  2. What I have seen in the protesters which negates any credibility is:
    A) Irresponsibility. Virtually every one of them has never seen the opera either in performance or via DVDs of other productions (readily available on Amazon), nor have they even read a libretto, and
    B) Intellectual Dishonesty, in hat the long and highly honorable Jewish tradition of open debate, with examination of both or even many sides of a point in serious search for truth has not been engaged at any time. This crowd has made a summary decision based on nothing more than the old and disreputable standard, "I don't have to see it to know that it's blasphemy/pornography/bad art/subversive/offensive/etc. etc. etc."

  3. But the opera openly caricatures the Palestinian hijackers; Adams and Goodman were worried that the early drafts went too far in precisely this direction. To push it further would turn the opera into a 21st century morality play with better music: 'here is Satan, here are his threatening works, and, lo, he is defeated!' I think what protestors — these or any others in history — don't like is opera, or any art that admits of irony or ambiguity, touching on any subject which they feel is unambiguous. It reminds them that art is incomprehensible to them, in their narrowness and ignorance. It is precisely the same phenomenon as the Nationalsozialistische attack on 'degenerate art'.