With its final performance of the 2011 season, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis resuscitates a banished and nearly forgotten masterpiece of modern music. Fear of negative publicity and loss of donors have relegated The Death of Klinghoffer to the shelf for twenty years. Music lovers and foes of censorship should be grateful that Opera Theatre has the guts to present it. The result is a potent night of music and theater.
Based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and written by America's most accomplished living composer, John Adams, the opera was been steeped in controversy upon its premiere in 1991. The Anti-Defamation League condemned it as anti-Semitic, and letters to the editor published in the New York Times sported headlines like "Sympathy for Wanton Murder" and "Klinghoffer Daughters Protest Opera." It was banned in Boston post-9/11, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled an appearance by Adams, who was to have conducted some of the choral sections of the opera in late 2001. Though the outcry dwindled as the years passed, as recently as 2003 a Times review of the movie version was headlined "Is 'Klinghoffer' Anti-Semitic?"
The opera marked the second time Adams had collaborated with librettist and poet Alice Goodman. (Like Klinghoffer, the pair's first opera, Nixon in China, is rooted in history.) Klinghoffer draws its title from Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American passenger on the cruise ship who was 60 years old and physically disabled. The sole fatality of the incident, Klinghoffer was shot to death by the terrorists and thrown overboard, wheelchair and all. All four hijackers were ultimately captured, tried and imprisoned. The alleged mastermind of the plot, Palestine Liberation Front founder Abu Abbas, was apprehended by U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003 and died in custody. The opera deals with the events that transpired at sea.
Stage director James Robinson had his work cut out for him. Adams modeled Klinghoffer's structure after Bach's oratorios, pieces designed to be performed in church by a choir and solo singers on holidays like Easter and Christmas. The effect of juxtaposing lone voices against massed harmonies can be musically engaging in church. But when performed in a theater setting, oratorios tend to be static and visually uninteresting — a criticism leveled upon previous productions of Klinghoffer.
Robinson uses technology and choreography to stave off visual stasis. He punctuates Allen Moyer's eloquently stark and deceptively simple set with huge black-and-white projections of ocean surfaces that undulate with and underscore the rhythmic intensity of the music. It's hypnotically effective. The large choir representing "exiled Palestinians and Jews," onstage through most of the performance, mimes and physically elaborates on the opera's action and underlying themes.
The expressive movement of the choir pales in comparison to its powerful and poignant performance of Adams' magnificent music. Writing for massed voices is Adams' greatest gift as a composer. About 40 percent of the score is choral music. The solo vocalists, Christopher Magiera as the Captain, and Paul La Rosa, Matthew DiBattista, Aubrey Allicock and Laura Wilde as the terrorists, evoke their characters brilliantly, as does Lucy Schaufer, who sings three different roles. Brian Mulligan and Nancy Maultsby bring humanity and dignity to portrayals of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer.
Conductor Michael Christie, leading the orchestra with his right hand, the choir with his left and mouthing the words to time held notes for the singers, extracts every bit of the score's nuance. The St. Louis Symphony's experience with Adams' music reveals itself in their profoundly textured performance.
Ultimately, Klinghoffer is no more about politics than, say, The Diary of Anne Frank is. It's a deeply etched portrayal of injustice visited on individual human beings caught in the tectonic forces of history. And well worth seeing.