On October 7, 1985, the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, while on its way from Alexandria to Port Said, was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists. The hijackers threatened to kill all the passengers on board unless their demand for the release of some 50 Palestinian prisoners in Israel were met. In the event, they did murder one passenger, the American Jew Leon Klinghoffer, a partially paralyzed stroke victim confined to a wheelchair and traveling with his wife; he was killed by two bullet shots and, while still in the wheelchair, his body was cast overboard.
Upon landing in Port Said, the hijackers were turned over to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (to a faction of which they belonged) and placed on a flight to Tunis, but the plane carrying them was intercepted by American fighters acting upon the orders of President Reagan, and forced to land in Italy. Ultimately, the hijackers plus an accomplice were convicted in an Italian court, and in the end eleven others were also charged in the murder of Klinghoffer, including several whose whereabouts remained unknown.
It is fair to say that the world was outraged at the wanton cruelty of this terrorist operation; but it is also fair to say that the outrage hardly served to confer a guilty verdict upon the cause in whose name the murder was committed. And yet as always in these matters, a residue of outrage did remain, and the Klinghoffer murder served as yet another blot on the moral pretensions of the Arab fight against Israel and the Jewish people. But what proved reasonably clear in world reaction appears to have remained obscure in the precincts of art, where would-be creative types see themselves as judges upon the human condition. Before only a year had passed after the Achille Lauro affair, the stage director Peter Sellars, the composer John Adams, and the poet Alice Goodman decided to make an opera of the hijacking. At the time this team—all of them Harvard-trained and so representative of what was once called our “best and brightest”—was riding the crest of its excitement in working on another opera based on a contemporary theme, Nixon in China, a deadpan and often caricaturized version (finally premiered in 1987) of the famous trip that restored Sino-American contacts after more than two decades of estrangement.
The result of their work on the Achille Lauro hijacking is The Death of Klinghoffer, a two-act opera that received its premiere in Brussels last March, and was shown several times at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past September. In Europe it has already been presented in Lyons and Vienna; there is talk of doing it next year at Glyndebourne in England. In the United States it will be produced in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It will be recorded by Nonesuch, and it has already been broadcast by National Public Radio.
Of the three collaborators, only the librettist, Alice Goodman, is without much of a track record; her program credits, even now, include only the books for Nixon and Klinghoffer, and a translation of Mozart’s Magic Flute for a 1991 Glyndebourne production. Of the other two collaborators, Sellars and Adams, the former is by far the better known.
Born in 1957, Sellars was already a provocative and controversial presence in student dramatic activity at Harvard, and has been the enfant terrible of American stagecraft since the late 1970’s. A specialist in imposing his often outrageous directorial conceptions on classic operas, he has spent much time on those of Handel; in his 1981-82 staging of Handel’s Orlando for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, for example, the main character was transformed into an astronaut at Cape Canaveral. In the mid-1980’s, he had a brief and unsuccessful tenure as head of the American National Theater Company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In the late 1980’s his updated productions of Mozart operas at the Pepsico Summerfare Festival occasioned much favorable comment by those critics sympathetic to the theatrical and musical avant-garde, and were presented this past winter on PBS television, also to praise from similar sources.1 Nixon in China was Sellars’s idea, and in the resulting collaboration with Goodman and Adams, it was he who called the artistic shots.
As a composer, John Adams (born 1947) is now the youngest member of the quartet of minimalists that includes Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass2 The general phenomenon of minimalist music has been with us for some twenty years, and in its essence has involved, on the one hand, a retreat from the organized (and unorganized) dissonances associated with the 20th-century avant-garde, and, on the other, the reduction of music to its traditional consonantal and tonal elements, including scales, arpeggios, chords, and simple harmonies. Minimalism has also involved the unvaried repetition, often to a hitherto undreamed-of degree, of these traditional elements.
As a musical style minimalism has in recent years been thought to be particularly appropriate for opera, a form that has long seemed stultifyingly locked into music’s past. Einstein on the Beach (1976), Glass’s collaboration with director/designer Robert Wilson, marked both the debut of this operatic style and, to this date, its greatest success; several subsequent Glass operas, among them Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1984), have not generated anything like the interest of Einstein.
What Adams has brought to minimalism is a certain emphasis on sweeter-sounding harmonies and, on many occasions, melodic fragments growing out of these harmonies. As a result, Adams’s music has always been marked by the grafting of what at least formally are melodies—moving lines meant to give lyrical pleasure—onto the stock materia musica that make up the minimalist bag of tricks.
By now, Adams has written several large-scale non-operatic works, including Harmonium (1980), Grand Pianola Music (1981-82), and Harmonielehre (1984-85). Though these works display significant sonic differences, they do share one unifying characteristic: a prevailingly static quality, a slowness of movement that verges upon the exploitation of the physical qualities of sounds and their combinations for their own sakes, rather than for any relation these sounds and combinations may have to one another and to the structure and direction of the composition as a whole.
Adams’s most talked-about instrumental work is Harmonielehre, whose title was taken, one assumes consciously, from Arnold Schoen-berg’s harmony textbook of the same name (1911). Schoenberg’s treatise was meant as a compendium of traditional harmonic practice; Adams’s composition is little more than a compendium of the usual tiresome minimalist pulsating chords, mildly syncopated figurations, and juicily superficial melodies coming from nowhere and going nowhere. The overall musical effect of the Harmonielehre might be described as Vincent D’Indy without direction: a kind of ersatz late-19th-century French romanticism (deriving from the last operas of Wagner), self-indulgent in texture and melody, but always lacking the solid harmonic foundation so characteristic of traditionally trained 19th-century musicians.3
As is so often true of contemporary avant-garde music, the greatest interest lies in the explanatory material: the record-liner notes tell us that the second movement describes the wound of Anfortas, a hero of the medieval Grail romances (the name is given by Wagner in Parsifal as “Amfortas”), and the final movement describes an encounter between the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart and Adams’s infant daughter Quackie, in which the baby whispers the secret of grace into the theologian’s ear.
The two most recent large-scale orchestral works of Adams to be recorded are Fearful Symmetries (1988), an extended attempt to recreate the sound of the Ellington-swing-jazz world of the 1930’s, and The Wound-Dresser, a setting for baritone of Walt Whitman’s tragic poem (1865) about his stint as a nurse in the Civil War.4 Fearful Symmetries sounds merely like a talented send-up of the style and manner of 1930’s popular music; as is the case with Adams’s relationship to the world of D’Indy’s music, his evocation of the big-band world lacks the animating sense of purpose, both harmonic and melodic, that rendered the popular music of that era so distinctive. In The Wound-Dresser, Adams, once again returning to a turn-of-the-century French model, fails to connect the words and the music, not just in terms of meaning, but as a tonal whole. The result is a kind of quasi-poetic declamation occurring simultaneously with slowly-moving Debussyean impressionist harmonies and progressions.
It was, of course, Nixon in China that put Adams on the American compositional map; curiously, this was so even though it was his first opera, and bore every mark of Peter Sellars’s autocratic control. Seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the production was distinguished more for pasteboard characterizations of Richard Nixon, his wife, and the various Chinese officials with whom he came in contact, than for any serious attempt to confront the larger-than-life personalities of the characters. Sadly, the most intriguing aspect of the production was also the most offensive: the presentation of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, as a lumpish, often clearly menacing and altogether sinister figure, mostly silent but always evil in aspect. Indeed, Sellars’s Kissinger bears an uncomfortable resemblance to what might have appeared in an illustrated anti-Semitic tract of the 1930’s.
Despite all the wishful hyperbole that presented Adams as the great hope of American opera, it was immediately clear from the opening repeated scales, stuck in ponderous iterated chords and followed by simply harmonized and interminable choral declamation, and then by a long recitation from Nixon, that the contribution of his music to Nixon in China was meager. All Adams managed to do was to write a score in which the relationship of the music to the words, and to the events on stage, would be no more important or constitutive than that of music for modern dance, when that music is commissioned, as it almost always is, from minor composers.
As with such dance scores, what Adams produced here must be called incidental music, lacking independent existence as music and existing only in order to keep the mind of the viewer passively occupied during the slow moments, or rather hours, on stage. At most, it can be said that in Nixon Adams achieved a pop catchiness, an upbeat finger-snapping quality, perhaps reminiscent of TV fast-food commercials. This catchiness, in the context of all the declamation from the singers, the deadpan expressions onstage, and the pointless choreography of Mark Morris, ended up making the whole effort an inadvertently mocking comment not just on opera or on American opera, but on an audience that would pay good money to see famous characters act on stage like flattened denizens of the downtown art scene.
The reaction to Nixon in China was predictable: those critics oriented toward “the cutting edge” found it a great leap forward; those critics who take their pleasure in traditional opera found the whole exercise foolish and somehow demeaning. For Nixon’s supporters, its great virtue was to bring opera into the present day, proving that it could be relevant and about real people, rather than just gods and goddesses, musty figures of myth and romance, or stock personages out of theatrical history.
No doubt it was an enticing idea to put a singing Richard Nixon into the position of paying homage to a Mao Zedong made wise by age and the accomplishing of a world-historical revolution; yet Mao, large as he may bulk in the fantasy life of many radicals in the West, is too associated with murder in the minds of his own people to be represented as a hero. In any case, so weak were the characterizations of all involved, in music, libretto, and stage direction, that the real problem of just how contemporary politics might be made into opera was somehow elided, and in fact quite disappeared.
From the relative safety of Nixon in China as a subject to the moral and political minefields surrounding the hijacking of the Achille Lauro was quite a jump for the Sellars-Adams-Goodman team. Here was a confrontation, not as in Nixon between two superpowers and their two variously flawed leaders, but rather between terrorists and innocent civilians. Furthermore, the confrontation—coming at a moment when the Holocaust is still fresh in everyone’s mind—issued in the face-to-face killing of a Jew because he was a Jew, and a crippled and unarmed Jew at that. If this inevitably made the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer into a kind of hero, not in his own right but because of the millions of kindred victims whose fate he symbolized, then his murderers could only be villains.
But of course no one, knowing anything of the mindset of the artistic “cutting-edge” of our time, would be so foolish as to think that a trendy opera could be written taking the side of an innocent Jew murdered by revolutionary Arabs. On the other hand, it is also clear that the need to get the work funded, produced, and attended—not to mention common decency—forbade any attempt to make real heroes out of Klinghoffer’s killers. And so those responsible for Klinghoffer decided to treat the whole story as a matter of moral equivalence. One need look no further for evidence of this decision than the very title of the opera: The Death of Klinghoffer, rather than The Murder of Klinghoffer.
Accordingly, the opera starts with a Prologue containing a chorus of exiled Palestinians lamenting the destruction of their homes by the Israelis in 1948, followed by a group of middle-class American Jews discussing their own travels and the Klinghoffers’ upcoming trip, and ending with a “Chorus of Exiled Jews”—who seem to be tourists to Israel—lamenting, inter alia, the loss of their luggage, the picketing of Israeli movie theaters by the ultra-religious, and the existence in the Jewish state of military barracks.
Act I proceeds to the beginnings of the hijacking, with contributions from the ship’s Captain, a Swiss passenger, the ship’s First Officer, the leader of the hijackers (who orders the separation of Americans, Israelis, and Britons from the rest of the passengers), two other hijackers, and an Austrian passenger; a closing chorus sententiously sums up everyone’s discomfort. Act II opens with a “Chorus of Hagar and the Angel,” about the birth of the Arab people. It then describes the behavior of the hijackers as they wait for orders from their shore-based commanders, orders which never arrive. Klinghoffer is wheeled away, and then, off-stage, shot and thrown into the sea. His wife finds out the news from the Captain, and as she mourns her husband, the opera ends with everyone singing a chorus of platitudes about the night and God.
In considering an opera, one usually begins with the music and goes on to the libretto and the relationship between it and the music; in considering an opera in performance, one adds the production as a constituent element to be evaluated. But given the primacy of Sellars in the collaboration with Adams and Goodman, one must, I suppose, start here with the production.
There was only one set for the whole evening, an assemblage of scaffolding meant, presumably, to represent the ladders, gangways, and decks of a ship. There were almost no props on stage, except for Klinghoffer’s wheelchair, a walker used by another passenger, and two vulgar off-white overstuffed lounge chairs occupied in the Prologue by the Jewish friends of the Klinghoffers as they discuss the gewgaws they have brought back from their own trips. I should add, too, that the hijackers carried submachine guns.
The intoned speeches of the hijackers, picked up by small video cameras, were shown to the audience on huge screens; all the sung words were also both electronically amplified and displayed as surtitles on a screen at the left top of the proscenium arch. The singers, all with no more than adequate voices, uniformly wore vacant expressions, and this impression of characterlessness was only reinforced by the fact that some of them took more than one role, as when two of the Klinghoffers’ Jewish friends back home turn up later as hijackers.
Such action as there was involved scurrying up and down the scaffolding, and equally aimless walking to and fro on the stage. Perhaps just because there was so little real action related to the subject of the opera itself, a lot of time was given over to dance, choreographed by Mark Morris. Here were all the clichés of late-modern and postmodern dance: the alternate walking and running, the arms swung from the shoulders at knee and foot level, much flapping of hands, and plenty of random bows and kicks. The costumes were plainness itself, as was most of the lighting, with the exception of a rather nice Christmas-tree twinkling effect on the scaffolding toward the opera’s end. The much-talked-about dropping from the flies of a dancer tied to a rope, evidently meant to symbolize the dead Klinghoffer cast into the sea, came across as an artificial gimmick—Peter Pan, as it were, from Tribeca.
It is difficult to say very much about the language, qua language, of the libretto. Goodman clearly aimed at giving all the characters one kind of speech, albeit not one kind of statement. Only the opening conversation of the Klinghoffers’ friends (no doubt intended to show the consumerist materialism of such types), Klinghoffer’s own use of the word “shit” in describing the Arabs, and Mrs. Klinghoffer’s complaints at one point about bodily aches and pains, lowered the tone from the otherwise omnipresent middlebrow highmindedness. Infelicities of diction abounded, as when the Captain, attempting to bring matters to a peaceful conclusion, says that in the absence of a dialogue, “Evil grows exponentially. . .”; or when, in getting up his nerve to tell Mrs. Klinghoffer of the death of her husband, he tells her, “ . . . You are a very brave/Woman. A rara avis.”
And then there was John Adams’s music. As Klinghoffer makes clear, he has a very limited number of musical tools—four, to be exact—at his disposal. He can write languorous harmonies, as he does in setting the opening chorus of exiled Palestinians; he can write what seem like traditional melodies in everything save their inability to stick in the mind of the listener; he can write acre upon acre of repeated figurations, as he does so often to accompany the incessant recitative passages; and he can write glittery minimalist sections, full of syncopations and much assisted by the sound of synthesizers, as he does whenever (I suspect) he feels that the languor and the figurations have gone on too long. His vocal lines are usually undoubled in the orchestra, and usually unrelated as well to anything the orchestra is playing; the total effect thus is not one of singing, but of parlando, the quasi-toneless speaking of what ought to be musical lines.
The verdict, then, on Adams’s music, in The Death of Klinghoffer no less than in the earlier Nixon in China, is that it is at best utilitarian, a means of occupying the aural space, just as the stage production and the dancing occupy the visual space. I suppose it must be admitted that these works are indeed multimedia productions, but in quite a different sense from that in which the term is mostly used: the rule the Sellars-Adams-Goodman team appears to follow is that if one cannot do one thing artistically well, one ought to do lots of things.
The future for minimalist opera, as for minimalist music in general, hardly seems bright. Where the work of Glass, and now Adams, has signally failed is in its inability to connect music to the sung text and by so doing to project and delineate character. At most minimalism is able to communicate a single mood, one paradoxically combining restless boredom and febrile agitation. And beyond this ultimately fatal artistic lack lies a failure even more basic: the inability of minimalist music to stand on its own as music. There can be little doubt that it has proven a fundamental mistake to assume that the content of music lies in its basic elements of harmony, melody, and rhythm, rather than in their complete integration in a total system; Western music is just such a system, built out of basic elements, but gaining its genius from their combination, not from their isolation.
The question remains as to the viability of opera on highly visible contemporary subjects. It is difficult to decide this issue one way or the other without the example of such an opera produced by artists of high and memorable talent. Clearly, there are important advantages for artists in choosing operatic subjects on which it is possible to gain distance. Mythological subjects, historical subjects, stock characters of theatrical practice—all of these, though now derided by the trendy, provide composers and librettists with room in which to move: the artist need not take sides, or if he does, the question becomes not which side he takes, but how he takes the side he does. By contrast, contemporary subjects, because of their immediacy, inescapably compel artists and audiences alike to take sides, and simple sides at that. Where Klinghoffer is concerned, the pretense of not taking sides, of “even-handedness,” is just that—a pretense. For in treating the murder of Klinghoffer as a “death,” and in viewing the incident through the lens of moral equivalence, the opera for all practical purposes endorses the claims of the Palestinian assassins.
Still, the nature of opera as a form is so fluid, so difficult to define, that one would be rash to exclude any subject for operatic treatment. It is also true that an offensive treatment of a subject—the German nationalism and implicit anti-Semitism of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, for example—may be great art but nevertheless remain morally objectionable.
But The Death of Klinghoffer is hardly great art. Adams does not give the story musical expression of the stature necessary to carry it—and much the same can be said of the libretto and the stage production. So the verdict on contemporary operatic subjects must remain open. What is hardly open to dispute, however, is that poor Leon Klinghoffer, murdered first in life, has now been killed for a second time in art.
1 For my own reaction to the Sellars television productions of Mozart, see “Sellars Trumps Mozart,” in the New Criterion, April 1991.
2 I discussed the rise of musical minimalism in “From Avant-Garde to Pop” (COMMENTARY, July 1979, reprinted in my The House of Music, 1984).
3 For extraordinary examples of the beauties of this style in the hands of a major composer, I can recommend the Introduction to D'Indy's opera Fervaal (1889-95) and his Symphony no. 2 (1902-03). Unfortunately, neither work is currently available on CD.
4 Both works are on Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79218-2.