At the time this opera premiered in March 1991, the United States had just unleashed the firepower of the first Gulf War on Iraq, but the searing memories of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists on the cruise ship Achille Lauro were all-too-fresh and the accompanying controversy overshadowed just what a beautiful, haunting and poignant work this piece is. The CD release was on Nonesuch Records, the longtime label of Adams' highly-interesting and varied work.
Working with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars (the choreography was by Mark Morris), who collaborated with Adams on his somewhat lighter first opera, 1987's Nixon in China, the composer delivered a masterpiece of power, tension, a wide range of dynamics, emotion and contemplation. Over time, resistance to the idea of performing the piece has gradually lessened among many, though, understandably, a great many Jews are loath to support the work because it does give voice to the hijackers.
The work's connection to the Bach Passions, its use of dual roles for performers, the presence of choral prologues and at the end of the scenes, and a direct reference to Satie's Gymnopedie hearken back to time-honored traditions of music and stage performance from the ancient Greeks on. In the hands of Adams and Goodman, a definite modern twist is put into the composition that recognizes antecedents, while looking forward.
It is notable that the work ends with the very powerful and moving lament of the widow Marilyn Klinghoffer, whose vocalized responses range from tender to fiery and full of love for her murdered husband to anger to the ship's captain and rage against her husband's killers. Hearing the work and reading the lyrics, it is hard to imagine how the opera could be seen as any kind of mitigating apologia for the horrible acts perpetrated by the hijackers, though some of the points raised on behalf of the Palestinians do provide some sense of balance. It was (and, for many, is) the emotion behind the heinousness and cold-bloodedness of the crime and the eternal conflict it represents that generates the strong feelings about his masterful work of art.
As noted above, twenty-five years on, The Death of Klinghoffer is gradually becoming staged more frequently and Adams and Goodman afforded more positive recognition for the excellence of their work. Just last October, the work received its first performance at the Met in New York, but not without heated criticism of the institution and its Jewish general manager, as well as of Adams and Goodman and on-the-spot acrimony directed by protesters at attendees.
An excellent review and essay about the performance in The New Yorker is really worth reading as author Alex Ross spends considerable time addressing protests, as well as the performance and the piece, noting that there is nothing in The Death of Klinghoffer that "supports" the murder or the perpetrators. What Ross does perceptively point out is that the Klinghoffers don't appear until Act II, while the Palestinians take up a considerable amount of the first act--this, Ross speculated with good effect, might be at the heart of much of the anger directed toward the composer and librettist. Moreover, Ross highlighted the powerful end as represented by Marilyn Klinghoffer and offered the interesting observation that the orchestral aspect of the work was as important as the vocal.
Click here for a link to this very fine article.