Despite the recent unpleasantness, John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer has arrived at the Metropolitan Opera. Andrew and I did not attempt to attend earlier performances but saved our performance – with great anticipation – for a little later in the run, expecting (and finding) that all parties involved in the performance would have had time to settle into their work and put aside the general feeling of nervousness we were reading about in the press.
Here’s what I think, and I’ll begin with the music: there is not a note misplaced, not a theme or sung phrase that does not connect specifically to the overall picture that Adams is painting. From the opening “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” performed with the most delicate and sympathetic quietness the listener is engaged. Then comes the “Chorus of Exiled Jews” – the two choral pieces make up the prologue to the opera – and the audience is equally brought in. It was a very smart move on Adams’s part to open the opera with this introduction, and with the excellent visuals and stage direction, the entire prologue is mesmerizing to watch and hear.
Leading, not surprisingly, to equally beautiful music throughout the remainder of this difficult and upsetting opera. The music continually matches what’s going on, and while the overall musical structure and content range from the quiet peacefulness just mentioned to frightening, almost explosive sound-making to match what’s happening or being described, the great talent that John Adams brings to his composition never fails. I loved hearing almost every note, and I was constantly listening, as I had been two seasons ago with Nico Muly’s Two Boys when as an audience member I found I could not “stop” listening (not that I wanted to) for an instant. Every element of Adams’s composition has a purpose and you don’t want to miss a single “piece” of what’s happening, if you can help it.
The performances were almost beyond comment (but not for me, of course). This was an opera produced so carefully and prepared so seriously that not a single musician (both onstage and in the pit), singer, or dancer gave less that his or her utmost. Of course there were outstanding moments and I simply can’t name them all. But I also can’t forget some, too, such as Paul Szot as the ship’s captain, Alan Opie as Klinghoffer, Michaela Martens as his wife Marilyn, and Maya Lahyani as the Palestinian Woman. Spell-binding was Opie’s delivery of the “Aria of the Falling Body” and Lahyani’s poignant song of the life of the Palestinians caught up in the terrible events of the story was equally moving. And Martens – whose final aria I’ll describe later – is an amazing singer, combining acting skills and musical talent at a level that simply isn’t seen very often.
The production – a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera – is superb, one of the best of the Met’s modern operas. This one is made possible by an anonymous gift in honor of John Adams, and I can’t think of a finer honor than this tribute in the form of the splendid production. Again, far too many outstanding elements to describe but – for me – special mention has to be made of the choreography of Arthur Pita. Many, many sections of the overall production are danced and these, combined with the sophistication of stage movement for so many choral singers, principals, and others made for stunning visual pictures. Of particular note were two. The first was a particularly beautiful sequence performed by Omar, the youngest hijacker. Dancer Jesse Kovarsky had great success in the role and this section – danced as Lahyani’s song was sung – seemed to have special resonance with the audience as, to be fair, so did all the other opportunities when Kovarsky was “dancing out” Omar’s feelings (and, I think, confusion).
The second remarkable choreographed piece was a large-scale ensemble in which two male dancers move quietly – in crouching positions – onstage, to be surrounded by chorus members representing the Israeli settlers. The chorus is singing the “Desert Chorus” and while they sing, the desert is described (and shown) to be transformed into a productive landscape. The two dancers eventually move their bodies toward and into standing positions, finally holding in each hand a branch with a leaf to indicate the desert coming alive under the settlers’ care.
The opera is – as I’m sure I’ve made clear by now – not an easy opera. Intensity is built in to the music, the production, the performances, and of course into the horrible incident being described. Indeed, I don’t think (and I wasn’t alone here) I’ve ever sat in an opera in which every moment I was there I was filled with tension. You simply don’t relax. Every nerve is on end, and you know you are witnessing and learning about things going on in our world today (perhaps even worse than in 1985) and – excuse the cliché – there are no easy answers. For me the opera’s greatness is based on its music, and that music enables us to see and think about the kinds of things being described here from a different perspective. I see The Death of Klinghoffer as a plea as much as anything else, a plea that we – as humanity – move away from the hatred that has driven so much of our lives over so many years.
And yes, there was the controversy brought on by people who wanted to prevent the production of this important opera. Neither Andrew nor I likes to be told by others what we can and cannot see and hear. There’s no doubt that the The Death of Klinghoffer is a very disturbing story, and hearing it was very intense, as I’ve indicated. But we didn’t find it the anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian defense of terrorism that those demonstrating against it – most of whom have not seen the opera – had promised. Yes, the opera indicates that there are two sides to the Palestinian issue, and perhaps that’s upsetting to some. It wasn’t actually the kind of work that one can claim to have “enjoyed” and we don’t feel the need necessarily to see it again, but we were glad to have experienced the performance and to have been able to make up our own minds.
And, surprisingly since I was so taken by the opera and so positively determined to judge it on its own merits, the one tiny fault I found in the opera was part of this conclusion that I came to. (and this might have been my own fault – I might have “missed” something in the narrative). Despite the very sophisticated sets depicting the radar screens, the information that the entire sky was – during the hijacking – a (what we now call, I think) no-fly zone, and other clues that were perhaps offered, I had not picked up on the fact that world leaders were not willing to intervene. Someday I suppose I’ll do some research and try to figure out what was going on in diplomatic circles during the hijacking but now that I have that information, I see the point of the opera very clearly. It’s sung about by Marilyn Klinghoffer in the final moments of the opera, when she sings something along the lines of “if all the passengers on the ship had been murdered and their blood following the ship like oil on the water, the world would have done something. But for one victim it did not.”
Perhaps that’s an oversimplification on my part but those final lines (despite my remembering only the general idea and not the specific words) tell me that’s what The Death of Klinghoffer is all about, that when our humanity fails us and we stop caring about one person, it’s time for us to re-think who we are.