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Saturday, February 26, 2011

John Adams, "The Death of Klinghoffer"

John Adams
"The Death of Klinghoffer" (as performed by the Opéra National de Lyon)
Elektra (1991)
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

“The Death of Klinghoffer” presents another take on minimalism from John Adams. In this scenario, he applies it to a historical opera, a category he is well renowned in (other titles include “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic”).

Musically, the soundtrack to the opera is fascinating. Although it fits the bill of minimalism in a classical perspective, it is much different than that of “Harmonium.” As I have no better way to explain the sound, I will compare it with “technical” metal music. The idea behind technical metal is two guitarists play separate, simple parts that together form one complete riff. Adams uses the same technique to create suspenseful, eerie backing during the hostile actions of the Palestinian hijackers.

Ultimately, the plot is the biggest discussion point in this one. The story is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise liner, largely filled with Jewish passengers, off of the coast of Egypt by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish American, was killed during the action.

Every staging of this opera has been met with protests from Jewish activists claiming that the play is inherently anti-Semitic because it gives almost equal face time to the terrorists. True, the Palestinians do get time to argue their cause, but it works into the theme of the opera. Viewers see the events of the 1985 high jacking, but the plot is bigger than that. The overriding theme is that of the constant conflict in the Gaza region over the course of a century. The opening of the opera, beginning with the parts “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of the Exiled Jews,” shares the laments of two races who feel they have gotten the short end of the stick. The Palestinians are kept in their place however. Klinghoffer’s lone lines in the play involve him bashing the “justified” actions of his oppressors.

Of course, should a composer write a play from the perspective of the 9/11 high jackers, I’m sure I would be more sympathetic to what Jewish groups feel about “Klinghoffer.” The play demonstrates the relative ignorance of Westerners on the subject. Two parts feature an Austrian and British woman respectively, both sharing their survival strategies with a less grim outlook on the events. The British woman’s instrumental accompaniment is almost giddy.

The controversy behind this opera is a shame because it has prevented a wider audience from experiencing the skillful minimalist compositions at play. It will be run as a series for only the second time in the United States in June of 2011 at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Message me if you’re interested in carpooling.

INTERESTING FACT: The Achilles Lauro, the ship on which the 1985 events took place, is a bearer of bad news. In 1953, it collided with the MS Orange in the Red Sea. In 1975, it collided with the cargo liner Youssef, causing it to catch fire and sink. In 1994, it finally got its due, catching fire and sinking off the coast of Somalia.

Act II, Scene 1: I've never been a violent man, Leon Klinghoffer by John Adams on Grooveshark

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