Opera is a bloody business. Composers have long found inspiration in violent history or mythology, filling their works with assassinations, suicides, beheadings, rape and the wholesale slaughter of war. In 1985, a group of Palestinians hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish-American passenger confined to a wheelchair. When John Adams embarked on an opera based on the grisly event, he was following tradition. Just as he did in 1987 with "Nixon in China," he tackled an emotionally charged incident of the recent past. But Adams could not have imagined how the gulf war would conspire to make his opera newly "relevant" and turn its premiere into a media circus.
"The Death of Klinghoffer" opened last week in Brussels, in the wake of the war and the arrest in Athens of Abdul-Rahim Khaled, who plotted the Achille Lauro raid. An international covey of critics descended not just for opening night but for the dress rehearsal. Those who expected wild excess from the extravagant and remarkable imagination of director Peter Sellars - best known for his updating of Mozart operas - were clearly stunned. "They were dying to go home with a film clip of a man being shot in the head and dumped overboard," says Adams, "and instead they got this highly stylized event, more like a ritual than anything else." Or, as Sellars put it, "They expected transistor radios and Bermuda shorts. They came for the MSG high and I didn't give it to them."
What Adams and Sellars gave us is a work that fires the heart. They have intensified the drama of a lurid incident by taking a public event and turning it back into a private one. "Klinghoffer's" impact lies, first, in a powerful, evocative score and, second, in the controlled, emotive staging. Adams, Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris were determined not to take sides in the ancient, complex struggle between Palestinians and Jews. "Our purpose as artists is to lay a story out," Sellars says. "I hate the idea of someone in the audience with a scorecard, saying, 'That was pro-Palestinian, that was a good Jewish aria'."
They achieve their aim in part by blurring physical identities. The entire cast - principals, chorus and dancers - is dressed alike, in anonymous shirts, baggy trousers or skirts. Nearly all the principals take more than one role: Thomas Hammons, for instance, is a ship's officer and a hijacker. Both Adams and Sellars were inspired by the Passions of Bach. Like the oratorios, which also tell political stories, "Klinghoffer" is a spiritual work with massive choruses and arias. The principals almost never speak to one another, an especially effective device because their positions are polarized. The chorus comments on more abstract issues. (Some of the most stirring music is in two pieces for Palestinian and Jewish exiles. Significantly, they are very similar.) Adams has even used obbligato to delineate some characters: the Captain has an oboe accompaniment and Mamoud, the hijacker guarding him, a bassoon.
Working with George Tsypin's huge set of steel girders and gangplanks, Sellars has staged the opera with economy, occasionally using an outsize screen that isolates a singer in mesmerizing video close-up. His first-rate cast - especially baritones James Maddalena as the Captain and Sanford Sylvan as Klinghoffer - often use stylized gestures, like figures in a medieval painting, or freeze into tableaux vivants. Sellars likes to set stillness against frenzy. In "Klinghoffer," the frenzy is supplied by dancers from Mark Morris's company, who serve as everything from an undulating ocean to the agonized alter egos of the principals. But Morris's choreography has such a limited vocabulary that too often it's a drag on the work. Only rarely does it soar, as when Sylvan and dancer Keith Sabado, both playing Leon Klinghoffer, pull one another across the stage in a wrenching pas de deux of death.
Goodman's poetic libretto occasionally veers off into the arcane, but it is potent. Still, it is the score that is paramount. "Klinghoffer" is lush, considered and cathartic, a natural successor to Adams's short, deeply felt "Wound Dresser" (1989). The orchestration, with a haunting emphasis on winds, calls for traditional instruments as well as an array of synthesizers and samplers. With the help of sound designer Jonathan Deans and the commanding conducting of Kent Nagano, Adams creates a revolutionary, constantly shifting aural tapestry.
The opera, which Nonesuch will soon record, is scheduled in a half dozen European and American cities and has its United States debut in September at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Finishing the work during the war was, for Adams, an act of healing: "I'm glad that there's an opportunity for people to see something from America besides our bombs and machismo." Adams, who retains some of the pulse of minimalism but pursues his own harmonic path, is not afraid to write beautiful music. Accessibility is not a synonym for selling out. "You need to have some kind of lingua franca, some understood mode of dialogue with your listeners," he says. "I believe it is possible to create a work that is new and fresh and that has a feeling of the time we live in, but that can also communicate to large audiences." That imperative is, at bottom, what "Klinghoffer" is all about.