A week after the premier of The Death of Klinghoffer by the celebrated contemporary composer John Adams (Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic), protesters continued to line the streets at Lincoln Center. The crowd, convinced that Adams’ opera highlighted antisemitic sentiments, kept their distance as they chanted and handed out propaganda on tolerance and Jewish culture. Though peaceful, it was difficult to dismiss the disappointment behind their eyes as a swarm of patrons made their way into the opera house. I have often been in the midst of a sold-out audience at the MET for Nation Council Auditions or Live in HD performances, but this night was different; it was a Wednesday! Mid-week in NYC when most New Yorkers could be doing anything else, what seemed like thousands flocked to get the scoop on The Death of Klinghoffer for themselves. Regardless of content, classical music’s ability to produce involvement of this magnitude and debates on a national level seem like a win in the long war to keep opera alive and relevant to increasingly apathetic audiences.
Few could garner a guess as to what would take place in the coming moments. One usually goes into a performance with preconceived notions or past experiences; none of which I could apply to this particular work. All I knew was that this opera was based on events surrounding the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, a cruise ship off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. So, with an open mind and high expectations, we all plunged into the unknown, a common play space for both Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, together.
The overture was not the traditional display of orchestral prowess. Instead, a prologue featuring two choirs; one of exiled Palestinians and the other of exiled Jews, sang of their respective struggles as they wandered through uninhabited lands to find a new home. The stage, designed by Tom Pye, was bare, made to look like a desert accented by a small chorus of Palestinian refugees. Shrouded in traditional garb, high voices began to sing as if to echo the sound of the wind whirling through a desolate terrain. A clock of sorts appeared on the electronic walls of the set (Finn Ross), counting forward from what seemed to be the beginning of Israeli and Jewish struggle to the present day.
With the passage of time, Palestinians turned to Jews in a rather dazzling costume change. We witnessed small families start to form and as these families multiplied, trees sprang up in honor of new born children. This tribute was especially poignant for those who realized what it meant to ancient Israel. As this prologue came to a close, a powerful vignette of Jewish and Palestinian refugees coming together – and eventually intertwining – filled the massive stage to capacity. It was a wonderful display which seemed to highlight the similarities shared by the two groups; similarities which would soon fade as the drama unfolded.
Act one was set in 2014. Survivors of the hijacking gathered to recollect the events of October 1985. Chief among them was the Captain played by Paulo Szot. As a native English speaker, I was very happy to be able to understand nearly every word sung by Mr. Szot without glancing at the supertitles. His voice was strong and easily filled the Metropolitan opera house. The First Officer had a fine voice but was often covered up by the orchestration.
Almost immediately, we were tossed back to October of 1985. The fast-paced time travel had most of us feeling like we were on the set of the 2010 blockbuster hit, Inception. Instead of diving into dreams, we found ourselves toggling through time like Dr. Who or Marty McFly. Whether intentional or not, this tool of time travel exposed a barrage of questions. Where is the action? When is the action? Is this history; or does this depiction of events point toward our current state of affairs?
The scene on board the ship was utter chaos as the hijackers gathered passengers and took control of the vessel. Pistol and machine gun fire confirmed our presence in a hostile war zone. From this darkness rose the bright voice of Sean Panikkar who played Molqi, the leader of the hijackers. Panikkar must be commended on his impressive entrance. His soaring tenor rang through the violence and commanded the attention of the passengers and audience alike. The precision with which he sang these difficult passages was consistently thrilling throughout the opera.
Mamoud, played by Aubrey Allicock, was the hijacker responsible for guarding the Captain. With a rifle in hand, Mr. Allicock’s full, colorful voice succeeded in humanizing his character and compatriots as he sang of his mother, songs of home, and closing the eyes of his decapitated brother.
Adding a tinge of frightening humor to this dramatic story, an Austrian woman, played by Theodora Hanslowe, recounts locking herself in her room during the hijacking. Her aria focused on rationing her last chocolate bar and a small bowl of fruit. The aria’s final words are “I’d rather die alone; but I’d rather not drown.”
Act two opened with a moment of orchestral triumph. David Robertson seemed to conduct a film score rather than a classical orchestra. Effective electronic music and gun-shot sound bites shocked the audience into paying close attention to the actors. Molqi grows more violent, panic ensues and as a hijacker begins to abuse a small child, we finally hear Leon Klinghoffer cry out in defense of the young passenger.
Alan Opie sang the role of the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer. His baritone voice had an edginess to it as he stood up to the hijackers calling them “punks.” Though a hero in spirit, Klinghoffer’s afflictions leave him helpless against the able bodied terrorists. At this point the antisemitic rhetoric flew loosely from Ryan Speedo Green who played the role of Rambo, the most vocally prejudiced of the hijackers. Klinghoffer’s only other monologue came just after he was killed and thrown overboard. He uttered a prayer of sorts before his body and dismantled wheelchair were relinquished to the sea in a beautifully tragic dance choreographed by Arthur Pita.
An interjection came in the form of a British dancing girl played by Kate Miller-Heidke. She sang mostly of frivolities and Omar, the youngest and perhaps most eligible of the hijackers, who provided a steady stream of lit cigarettes as she stood staring at the boat’s rivets from which she drew some hope and mental stability. Lighthearted music accompanied her naïve account of events. Ms. Miller Heidke’s voice, however, was one of the most unique and memorable of the evening. Her brilliant tone and shimmering sonorities were supported by incredible diction and dramatic flare. Her performance is a testament to great singers who make the most out of “small” roles.
The final scene was stark. Passengers greeting their loved ones slowly exited the stage. The group of young Palestinian idealists were allowed to disembark on the Captain’s word that there were no fatalities. Two figures remained on the empty deck; the Captain and Mrs. Klinghoffer. “Your husband has been killed. There was no witness. I am told his body was thrown overboard in the wheelchair. I am afraid it is true.”
The news sends the heartbroken Mrs. Klinghoffer, sung dramatically by Michaela Martens, reeling in a fit of rage as she sings her final aria “You embraced them!” First with anger toward the Captain, then the Palestinian punks, and finally inward to her own guilt. “Why didn’t I know,” she proclaimed. Her husband, her best friend. The loss was too much. “They should have killed me,” she said. “I wanted to die.”
The Death of Klinghoffer was not an antisemitic opera about the killing of a Jew. Nor was it in any way glorifying the terror brought on by the Palestinian hijackers. Instead, though dramaturgically fractured and sometimes enigmatic, I saw this as a reflection of events that at one time in recent history, stirred the conscience of decent humans all over the world. If current events with ISIS, school shootings, and marathon bombings teach us anything, it is that the senseless killing of our fellow humans, regardless of religion, race, belief systems, or lack thereof has no place in resolving the issues we all face in society.
There is still an opportunity to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production on Saturday, November 15th at 1pm.