"The Death of Klinghoffer": controversial history in opera


Leon Klinghoffer was an American Jew sailing aboard the Achille Lauro in 1985, when a team of Palestinian Liberation Front hijackers seized control of it off the Egyptian coast, holding the crew and hundreds of passengers hostage. The PLF's demand, as cited in the 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer, was the release of 50 Palestinian political prisoners.

Composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman specialize in expressing 20th century historical events in opera. They are better known for their 1987 Nixon in China and, with librettist Peter Sellars, 2005's Doctor Atomic about nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

The rarely staged Death is the most controversial, dogged by criticism and cancellations. Long Beach Opera's production was the Southern California premiere of this work which debuted more than 20 years ago in Brussels, and then performed in Lyon, Vienna, and Brooklyn. What's the problem?

In the first scene a chorus portrays Palestinian refugees in a lamentation with a haunting melody and lyrics: "My father's house was razed in 1948 ... Israel laid all to waste." This is extremely powerful: for U.S. theatergoers, a rare live stage expression of what Palestinians call "al-naqba", Arabic for "catastrophe," referring to the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland during the conflict that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

Contrast the comparatively commonplace renditions of Jewish suffering, not just Fiddler on the Roof, but many other films and stage works. This makes Death's second scene, with the same singers now as Jewish Holocaust refugees, far less potent and poignant, simply because scenes of Jewish misery are familiar to us, unlike the plight of the Palestinians.

This attempt to present a Palestinian perspective and backstory exposed Adams to charges of anti-Semitism and efforts to censor and suppress Death. But Adams - and Goodman (raised Jewish) - were striving to explain the fertile soil from whence terrorism grows. They also remind us that both Jews and Palestinians are historically aggrieved parties. But suffering does not always ennoble; rather, it can bring out the worst in people, with relentless mutual retaliation that only exacerbates outstanding grievances. The terrorist Rambo, chillingly played by baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez, sadistically enjoys inflicting suffering on the helpless hostages.

The portrayal of Leon Klinghoffer (baritone Robin Buck) is troublesome. Klinghoffer is revered as a folk hero to Jews and some Americans because despite being an invalid in a wheelchair he verbally stood up to the hijackers. In the opera he arguably comes off as somewhat unsympathetic, blind to his Palestinian captors' actual grievances, perhaps even a bit arrogantly belittling Arab suffering. (According to the plot, at least one hijacker lost close relatives during the 1982 massacres at the Israeli-controlled Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.)

It's certainly true that the misfortune of the wretched of the Earth is largely neglected by corporate media. To get attention, les misérables often resort to spectacular measures in the form of horrifying violence, which cannot be ignored. But the indiscriminate slaughter of unarmed civilians, innocent of any direct connection to historical offenses, is widely regarded as a loathsome, despicable tactic that usually results in terrible PR for terrorists and their causes.

The opera's 50 minutes' worth of choral interludes, telling the Biblical story of Hagar, set in the desert, on the ocean, etc., are meant to illuminate the overall theme, but some observers found them diversions from the linear narrative.

Still, Death is a towering work of art ably directed in this production by James Robinson and conducted by LBO's Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek. The set design by Allen Moyer cleverly evokes a cruise ship and Greg Enetaz's video design is likewise evocative.

Standouts in the cast include Suzan Hanson as Marilyn Klinghoffer - the couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary with this cruise, Jason Switzer as the hijacker Mamoud, and Danielle Marcelle Bond portraying three passengers awkwardly coping with the situation. Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell excels in a gender bender role as the terrorist Omar.

Opera has always tackled current affairs and historical events. Bravo to the composer and librettist for taking this topic on and to LBO for presenting it. Adams, the Minimalist music man musing on human misery, has attained maximum effect.

The Death of Klinghoffer was performed March 16 and 22 at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, Calif. The opera receives its Metropolitan Opera premiere in New York next season.

Photo: The actual Achille Lauro ship, photo taken in Malta in 1994, via Long Beach Opera Facebook page


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  • Ed Rampel does not have even the basic facts of Middle East history right.

    There were *not* -- as Ed claims -- an "expulsion" of 700,000 Palestinians from the homeland during the conflict that led to the establishment of the state of Israel.

    Rather, most of the refugee crisis occurred *after* the establishment of modern Israel, and as a result of all surrounding Arab countries making war against Israel.

    It must be nice to be able to fudge facts, in the absence of a competent and ethical fact-checker.

    Of course, we should not expect anything better, where instead of calling a murder a murder, a murder is called a "death." Leon Klinghoffer was murdered. And he wasn't Israeli; he was American.

    Posted by Scott Rose, 05/31/2014 12:27pm (2 years ago)

  • Excellent and sensitive review. I was there, at Long Beach Opera for this incredible Southern California premiere.

    AGREED: John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer is a critical and towering work of ART. THIS IS CLEARLY one of the most important showcases of art, history, opera and theater on the planet.

    Adams and Goodman take us into a fuller NARRATIVE of The Middle East drama that many Jewish people who are invested in presenting and preserving an idealized "technicolor portrait of Israel" .....want suppressed. It seems that there is a major investment in not wanting the full truth of what has happened in Palestine 1947-1987 to be known to the world public.

    Yet, it is the Narrative of the non pristine Israel and the non pristine Palestinian worlds that needs to be known and understood. THIS is exactly what Death of Klinghoffer does and that is why it is considered "dangerous, subversive and "anti semitic"

    However, progress in the human condition and world peace can not come from suppression and repression of the narrative of history. Communication and rapproachment are two sides of any story: not just one side.... e.g. not just Israel's side.

    I support all efforts to bring this opera to larger audiences. It is an incredible work of great importance.

    Posted by Bill Doggett, 04/13/2014 10:19pm (2 years ago)

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