Sunday, October 26, 2014

Very Grateful: The Opening of Klinghoffer

In the midst of our online forum on American works for National Opera Week, we couldn't ignore the extraordinary opening of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer last Monday. So here are some thoughts.

I knew I couldn't miss Klinghoffer's opening night at the Met. Even if I don't agree with the protests, I can't help the thrill of any work of art creating a vehement discussion in the headlines. I managed to arrive to my cozy balcony box after making it past the barricades and protesters without much altercation...

Upon seeing the barricades along Columbus Avenue, I asked a very senior-looking police officer:

"Excuse me, how do I get into the Met?"

"For what?" he flips back.

"For the...opera...?" (perhaps he was unaware that there was an actual performance going on behind the metal fences?)

Finally another officer overheard and directed me to the stairs on the 65th street side, where I was greeted by this festive welcoming committee:

I was rather disappointed that the protesters were not allowed onto the plaza itself - do they not have a right to assemble in a public plaza? But then because they were mostly on Columbus Avenue, and unshielded by the reverent buildings of Lincoln Center, you could hear their noise all across Broadway. So perhaps more people heard about what was going on than if they'd been allowed front and center.

Anyway, it was an amazing evening nevertheless, and leave it to The New Yorker and Mr. Alex Ross to give a succinct and sensitive response to the events. I found the column's illustration by Tomer Hanuka less insightful than Mr. Rose's prose, however, as the dancer/actor playing the assailant Omar, Jesse Kovarsky, was not scary or brawny. He was indeed a tiny dancer, not much taller than five feet and the body of a teenage boy, costumed simply, in a red T-shirt and blue pants. His form slowly attacking Mr. Klinghoffer was so frightening precisely because the evil was so small, so young, and clearly so impressionable. It makes the deed even more horrific. The evil is clearly much greater and more insidious than a single deranged murderer.

Alan Opie, as Leon Klinghoffer, and Jesse Kovarsky, as the terrorist Omar, on board the Achille Lauro, in John Adams’s opera. Illustration by Tomer Hanuka.

However, the illustration is accurate in the staging - in Tom Robbins's production, the murder is committed onstage, as opposed to the the score's indication of simply an offstage gunshot, an indication that most past productions have followed, to my knowledge.

From my seat in a house left balcony box, the scene was terrifying and mesmerizing: this tiny young man, goaded and haunted by the voice of his mother to serve his homeland with violence, slowly and cowardly creeping up behind a noble and brave elderly hostage, pointing his gun through the man's back and straight at the audience; gold light from behind him spilling, flowing in a treacherous force forward, so the entire house of onlookers was ablaze in this bright hate. The music twists and wrenches and roars.

And then the gunshot. And nothing. Some red. A man slumped in his chair.

The sombre, anti-climactic silence of death. I was left staring at the extra dancers, dressed as white crew members, unlocking the manual brakes of his wheelchair as they took it offstage.

Why do we need works of art that depict such terrible murders? Such insurmountable sins of humanity? Because a piece like John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer reminds me that a tiny bit of hate can do a world of hurt. Just like the anti-semitism that led to the Holocaust, or the animosity that led to gunshots in Ferguson: it starts in small forms, in small packages, and is dismissed. Until there are gunshots.

The piece also reminds me how culture and behavior is passed through generations: the British woman behaves as a hostage just how she did during WWII; the anger of the Palestinians is passed along each generation. When each generation has known the same feelings and the same behavior, they forget any other way of living.

I also must give this piece credit not only for it's beautiful and poignant ending, sung gorgeously by Michaela Martens, but its specific portrayal of Marilyn Klinghoffer as a no-nonsense, wise, beautiful, brave, simple, sensitive, strong woman. And one who is a low mezzo, a fach usually relegated to witches and crones. I can't think of any character in the operatic repertoire quite like Marilyn Klinghoffer, and just for that, Alice Goodman and John Adams deserve an ovation.

Quite surprisingly, the Klinghoffer's daughters Lisa and Ilsa do not share in the celebration of this heroic portrayal of their parents. In their message printed in the Met program (graciously appearing along its center page with the staple seam), they disparage the opera completely, saying,

"[Adams's opera] offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father...and sullies the memory of a fine, principled, sweet man..."

I read this after seeing the piece on Monday night, and am left bewildered. Not only did I not feel that any action of the story was legitimized, but all the kind words the daughters wrote about their father were things I understood from watching his character on stage. Again, the creators deserve praise for this.

Above all, I know that without this opera, the name Mr. Leon Klinghoffer would mean nothing to me, nor to the large majority of Met audiences. We would not know what he believed in, nor how he died. Great art tells stories that must be told.

At the opening night reception, John Adams remarked that he was merely a vessel through which the piece passed through, and the opera's artists made real. He was grateful. So should we be.

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