Born Again (Film of The Death of Klinghoffer)
Reprinted from The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer edited by Thomas May, published by Amadeus Press. Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in LA Weekly (November 10, 2003) and is featured here with permission of the author, editor and publisher.
The Death of Klinghoffer is again before us, insistent, moving, inescapable. Nobody of consequence has ever challenged the intense musical power of John Adams’s opera; within a different dramatic context, absent the outcries of Palestinian terrorists stating so compellingly the basis of their hatreds, of their belief that “America is one big Jew,” this opera of 1991 would be everywhere recognized as a dramatic score of foremost quality. Yet the work survives in an aura of hatred. Michael Steinberg’s program note for the original Nonesuch recording of the opera struck an ironically prophetic note: “On whichever day you read these words,” he wrote concerning the tragedy of Leon Klinghoffer, “there will be a new installment in the morning paper.”
Now Klinghoffer has been reborn, in a version which, beyond all previous stagings—and certainly beyond all carefully unstaged concert renditions—creates the best possible context for the work’s greatness. Another irony: Adams and the British filmmaker Penny Woolcock were creating this version in London when the news of 9/11 broke; it took only a moment’s hesitation before the decision was made to continue. The result, which played at last year’s Sundance Festival, is now available on a DVD issued by Decca.
The film offers the strengths of Klinghoffer, by more and by less. “By more” is the fact that the score has been drastically reworked; dramatic reordering has occasioned musical reordering as well, and the results are stunning. Much use has been made of news footage; a Palestinian sings of his family’s being dispossessed by new Jewish settlers in 1948, and there are shots to support his words. The passengers aboard the hijacked cruise ship sing of their sufferings of generations past, and shots of Nazi pogroms are intercut. “By less” is a minor deprivation: the opera has been shorn of twenty shearable minutes.
More to the point, the action of the opera itself has been moved onto a plane of reality removed from Peter Sellars’s original, somewhat idealized conception. The murder of the wheelchair- ridden Leon Klinghoffer actually takes place center stage—not offstage, as in Sellars—and then his final tragic invocation, “May the Lord God and His creation,” is sung by his murdered body as it slowly descends through clear Mediterranean waters. Once again, as with the opera since its creation, the eloquent Sanford Sylvan inhabits the personage of the good, tragic Klinghoffer fiber by fiber; no less powerful is the steel-and-granite Marilyn Klinghoffer of Yvonne Howard. Adams himself conducts.
Stunning opera-making, stunning movie-making; I am tempted to regard this remarkable piece of silvery plastic as a major forward step in the dissemination of an artistic commodity through the popular media. The fluidity—the easy transition between the reality of trapped, innocent people on a cruise ship in the hands of equally confused captors and the social forces that have brought them to this point; the transitions, as well, between these people at this point in their lives, and the state of their lives yesterday and the week before—is an element wedded to film. It is brilliantly managed here.
At the end there is nearly an hour’s worth of auxiliary material, every word of it relevant to the matter at hand with filmmaker and composer especially inflamed by the splendor of the work they have created. Most moving also are the words of librettist Alice Goodman, whose life has been most drastically changed by the fate of Klinghoffer, the citizen and the opera. A “nice Jewish girl from Chicago” in 1991 (with the enormous triumph of the Adams/Sellars Nixon in China to rest upon), she has assumed the brunt of the reproach leveled at Klinghoffer‘s controversial message and stands by her words. Whether because or despite, she has in that time abandoned Judaism and now preaches at an Anglican church in London, to a largely Palestinian congregation. She comes off the video as someone you’d love to meet, and someone you have to believe.
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