Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Death at Sea

June 26, 2011

l-r: Laura Wilde, Brian Mulligan, Nancy Maultsby, and Paul La Rosa Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

Unquestionably, the highlight of this year’s opera festival in Saint Louis has been the return of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer to the American stage. Twenty years after its premiere in Belgium, followed by controversial runs in both New York and San Francisco, it received its first complete staging in the U.S. this month. It turned out that an opera in 1991 on the subject of the 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists aboard the hijacked Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro was a topic too hot to handle at the time, generating denouncements from many quarters that it was biased in many different directions simultaneously. Which may be true, but, of course, it’s art and by its very nature and design, it’s meant to be unfair. The charges and protests provided an extra obstacle to the many that new operas already face in receiving second or third stagings, and so Adams’ second opera vanished from sight. It wasn’t even presented by some of the organizations that paid for its creation, including the Glyndebourne Festival and Los Angeles Opera. Why The Death of Klinghoffer has generated relatively little controversy during its resurfacing here is Saint Louis is the more interesting question. There have been no reports of protestors outside of the theater that I have seen, and outside of some pro forma media coverage on the history of the controversy, this production has come and gone with little more than its deserved laurels for artistic excellence.

The chorus in The Death of Klinghoffer Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

How this came to pass is likely manifold. Opera Theater of Saint Louis spent a great deal of time and effort preparing the community for the production, offering forums for members of the “Interfaith Community” to meet in public and share ideas and feelings on the issues at hand. The lack of controversy this time around may also have stemmed from a gradual reintroduction of the work to the public over the last few years through a number of concert presentations of the opera in part or whole around the U.S. and the rest of the world. Or it may be that we Americans have changed. The understanding and awareness of terrorism and its perpetrators is very different for the vast majority of Americans since 1991. That nagging question of how and why a group of people in the world hate so much, and specifically hate us so much, that they are willing to sacrifice everything to express that hate has far deeper resonance in the U.S. in 2011 than in 1991. The larger implications of a murder taking place half-way around the world now seems more personal than just another episode in an ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Terrorism may not have changed in 20 years, but our view of the world has and I would argue that The Death of Klinghoffer has as much to say about those questions and feelings now as it did then.

Christopher Magiera and Aubrey Allicock Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

But this is still an opera above all else despite its underlying meaning. Musically, it’s absolutely stunning. Although it was composed just a few years after Nixon in China the changes in Adams’ compositional style away from his more minimalist roots are already on full display. The Death of Klinghoffer is much more clearly related to later works, like Adams’ oratorio El Niño than his earlier compositions. It is often lyrical and outright pretty. The musical backbone of the opera is a series of large choruses that were wonderfully performed by the OTSL chorus with the orchestra under Michael Christie. The choruses do not move the narrative of the hijacking forward, but serve as a point of reflection on the history, emotions, and underlying conflicts that fuel the opera’s actions. These are themes and text that would be difficult to ascribe to particular characters and they provide an overwhelming counterpoint to the other activity on stage. The action of the opera mostly takes place off stage with characters instead describing their histories and internal emotional states in Alice Goodman’s wonderful libretto. The work’s crescendo arrives with a pair of arias sung by Leon Klinghoffer and his wife Marilyn after his death. Brian Mulligan, a vocalist whom I admire more and more with each listening, gave another piercing performance in what Adams calls the “Aria of the Falling Body” where Klinghoffer reflects on his life as his dead body falls to the sea in his wheelchair after it has been pushed off of the boat. Nancy Maultsby’s Marilyn gets the final word of the evening with a brilliant aria of pain and rage directed toward the ship’s captain that both parallels and references the arias given to the terrorists earlier in the opera.

By request: One more photo from the gun show. Paul La Rosa as "Rambo" Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

All of the cast members give credible and very engaging performances including Christopher Magiera as the captain, Aubrey Allicock as Mamoud, and Laura Wilde as the young Omar. The excellent Lucy Schaufer plays a trio of international passengers aboard the vessel who seem more or less oblivious to the seriousness of what is unfolding around them. The festival’s artistic director James Robinson, who also directed this production, creates a simple set dominated by a multi-panel wall resembling the hull of a ship. There is ample video augmentation on a movable banner-shaped projection screen that is raised and lowered. There is a minimal amount of fuss over the actions of the chorus which do include some activity directly referencing the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not so much that it becomes cloying or heavy handed. Robinson lets the characters speak for themselves.

It’s doubtful that The Death of Klinghoffer is going to change anyone’s mind about anything. It is not going to make people into terrorist sympathizers nor is it going to rally Americans for increased military action overseas. But it does reflect on a world we live in right now quite beautifully and encapsulates some of the emotions streaming from that time in ways that are both frightening and touching. Audiences in Saint Louis have been lucky enough to see this work again and hopefully it will live again elsewhere very soon.



Nicely stated, Brian. I look forward to being able to see this one day.
"Twenty years after its premiere in Belgium, followed by controversial runs in both New York and San Francisco, it received its first complete staging in the U.S. this month." I'm curious what you mean by "first complete staging," since it already played at BAM in New York and the San Francisco Opera before Los Angeles Opera chickened out with its planned presentation in the face of donor protests.

Did St. Louis use the excised prologue on Long Island that was criticized for its antisemitism? It was cut out of the opera by the time they reached San Francisco, which is the only way 'first complete staging in U.S.' makes any sense. And by the way, the New York production was "controversial" in that the Klinghoffer family and various militant Jewish groups were protesting in front of BAM during its run, but in San Francisco there was little to no controversy at all, and the show sold out.

I remember that detail because I was one of the supernumeraries added by Peter Sellars to the production for the last performances of the original show. We all got to be hostages and do weird movement during the choruses while dodging the Mark Morris Group dancers, and it couldn't have been more fun. And yes, the choral music is insanely beautiful, but hard as hell to sing. For the final Marilyn Klinghoffer aria with chorus, many of the choristers in San Francisco wore flesh-colored Band-Aids with private cheat marks to help keep track of the music.

The 2003 British movie version of the opera by Penny Woolcock may be my favorite opera movie of all time (next to the lunatic Michael Powell "Tales of Hoffman"). If you haven't seen it, do check it out. Sellars went to great lengths to go for an abstract oratorio staging, whereas the movie just goes ahead and films the piece as a "CNN opera," which was the contemporary criticism of Adams' first two operas. Both approaches work just fine. It's a great piece.
I mean that the St. Louis staging is the first full one since the original Peter Sellars-directed staging which toured Belgium, SF, and NY. The BAM run was also in 1991 and SF in 1992 I believe.

The Long Island scene that was excised in response to charges of antisemitism was not performed in St. Louis and my understanding is that it has been officially withdrawn so it won't appear in anything Adams or his publisher sanctions from here on out I would imagine.
No cheat marks on bandaids for the OTSL chorus ... Just insanely hard work, routine and the exceptional chorusmaster Robert Ainsley ... :-)
I keep hearing about this almost mythical opening scene of Klinghoffer that was set in a NY apartment. I hear that this scene was the crux of the antisemitism issue, not so much the rest of the opera.

Has anyone who saw the original production comment on this scene? What was it about? Was it so antisemitic that the whole creative team has had to bury it?
Well, I was not there in either Brussels or NY. However, two good friends of mine, a couple who I recently stayed with in SF last week, saw the production at BAM including the notorious Long Island scene. (I believe this couple may be in your acquaintance as well Jim.) They regularly engage in arguments about this topic to this very day. In fact it was brought up during my recent stay between them yet again.

The Jewish member of this couple continues to find the scene offensive and outright anti-semetic. The non-Jewish member of the pair disagrees.

As described to me, the scene occurs early in Act I between the two opening choruses. It includes the members of a fictional Jewish family, the Rumor family, that are neighbors of the Klinghoffers who themselves do not appear in the scene. The scene purportedly captures everyday family life and bickering among the Ruomrs over a variety of issues including an item about Yasir Arafat that has appeared in the New York Times. The scene plays on stereotypes for laughs and is also meant as a send up of 1950s sitcom families.

There is a detailed description of the scene in Edward Rothstein's 1991 NYT review of the show and a detailed summary in The John Adams Reader as well edited by Thomas May which may serve as further resources if you're interested.
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