The Death of Klinghoffer

The Death of Klinghoffer

The Death of Klinghoffer is an American opera, with music by John Adams to an English-language libretto by Alice Goodman. First produced in Brussels and New York in 1991, the opera is based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the resulting murder of Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The concept of the opera originated with theatre director Peter Sellars,[1] who was a major collaborator, as was the choreographer Mark Morris. It was commissioned by five American and European opera companies, as well as the Brooklyn Academy of Music.



The prologue to the opera consists of two choruses, the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and the "Chorus of Exiled Jews", each of which is a general reflection about the respective peoples and their history.

Act I begins as the unnamed Captain of the Achille Lauro recalls the events of the hijacking. Prior to that, most of the passengers had disembarked in Egypt for a tour of the Pyramids, and the ship set out to sea to return later for the touring passengers. The hijackers had boarded during the disembarkation. When the hijackers commandeer the ship, the passengers still on board are collected in the ship's restaurant. The narrative shifts to a Swiss grandmother, traveling with her grandson whilst the boy's parents are touring the pyramids. The ship's first officer, given the fictitious name of Giordano Bruno, informs the Captain that terrorists are on the ship and one waiter has been wounded. The Captain and First Officer try to keep the passengers calm. Molqi, one of the hijackers, explains the situation to the passengers at gunpoint. The Captain and Molqi have an encounter, where the Captain orders food and drink to be brought, and offers to let Molqi choose the food for the Captain to eat.

Following the "Ocean Chorus", Scene 2 introduces another hijacker, Mamoud, as he keeps guard over the Captain. Mamoud recalls his youth and songs he listened to on the radio. The Captain and Mamoud have a dialogue, in which the Captain pleads that individuals on the two sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could meet and try to understand each other. Mamoud dismisses this idea. During this scene is a passenger narrative by the Austrian Woman, who locked herself in her cabin and remained hidden throughout the hijacking. Act I ends with the "Night Chorus."

Act II begins with the "Hagar Chorus", related to the Islamic story of Hagar and the Angel, and the Biblical story of Hagar and Ishmael. It represents the beginnings of Arab-Israeli tension, of which the hijacking is one historical result. In Scene 1, Molqi is frustrated by having received no reply from ? to his demands. Mamoud threatens all of the passengers with death. Leon Klinghoffer sings, saying that he normally likes to avoid trouble and live simply and decently, but going on to denounce the hijackers. Another hijacker, called "Rambo", responds in harsh terms about Jews and Americans. The passenger, the British Dancing Girl, recalls how well the fourth hijacker, Omar, treated her and the other passengers, for example, letting them have cigarettes. Omar sings of his desire for martyrdom for his cause. At the end of the scene, Omar and Molqi have a dispute, and Molqui takes Klinghoffer away. The "Desert Chorus" follows.

Scene 2 starts with Marilyn Klinghoffer talking about disability, illness, and death. She thinks that her husband Leon was taken to the ship's hospital, but he was shot, off-stage. The hijackers have ordered the Captain to say they will kill another passenger every fifteen minutes. Instead, the Captain offers himself as the sole next person to be killed. Molqi appears and says that Leon Klinghoffer is dead. The "Aria of the Falling Body (Gymnopédie)", sung by Klinghoffer, follows. The "Day Chorus" links Scene 2 to Scene 3, which occurs after the hijackers have surrendered and the surviving passengers have disembarked safely in port. The Captain remains to tell Marilyn Klinghoffer the news of about her husband's death. She reacts with sorrow at her husband's death and rage towards the Captain, for what she sees as his accommodation of the hijackers. Her final sentiment is that she wished that she could have died in Leon's place.


The general style of the opera's music resembles that of Adams' minimalist music period, in the vein also of music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Intervallic relationships such as affekt are used to evoke certain emotions. The drama is portrayed primarily in long monologues by individual characters, with commentary by the chorus, which does not take part in the action.

Both Adams and Sellars have acknowledged the affinity of the opera's dramatic structure to the sacred oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach, in particular his Passions. The plot of the opera does not contain a detailed re-enactment of the events of the hijacking and the murder of Klinghoffer; the major events are not directly portrayed on stage and occur between the opera's staged scenes. The artists originally considered the opera as more of a "dramatic meditation" or "reflection", in the manner of an oratorio, rather than a conventional narrative opera driven by plot.

Based on this aspect, the opera has been criticized as undramatic and static, particularly in Act I, whereas Act II is more "conventional" in terms of operatic narrative.[2] In defence of this unconventional structure, John Ginman has analysed the particular dramaturgy and structure of the opera.[3]

The opera's choral passages have been performed and recorded separately as Choruses from Klinghoffer.

Performance history

The opera was originally commissioned through a consortium of five opera companies, including La Monnaie, San Francisco Opera, Opéra de Lyon, Los Angeles Opera and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, as well as the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The first performance took place at the Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium, on 19 March 1991, directed by Sellars.[4] The first US performance was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 5 September 1991.[5] Because of the ensuing controversy and reaction to the subject matter and philosophy of the opera (vide infra), the Glyndebourne and Los Angeles productions did not take place. When the original production was staged at San Francisco Opera in November 1992, the Jewish Information League staged protests.[6]

The next full staging of the opera did not occur until February 2001, in Helsinki at Finnish National Opera.[7] The first complete UK performance did not occur until a 2002 concert performance in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.[2] Penny Woolcock directed a British television version of the opera, in revised form, for Channel 4, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adams; it was telecast in 2003.[8] The first fully staged UK production took place in August 2005 at the Edinburgh Festival, by the Scottish Opera.[9][10][11]

In the USA, the opera received a new series of concert performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December 2003.[12] The Curtis Institute of Music, through the Curtis Opera Theatre and the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, gave a performance of the opera in Philadelphia in February 2005. In February 2009, students at the Juilliard Opera Center performed a semi-staged concert version, with Adams conducting.[13] The opera received its second fully staged American production in June 2011 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, directed by James Robinson.[14][15]

The first Australasian performance of the opera was in February 2005 at the Auckland Festival.[16]

Political controversy

Controversy surrounded the American premiere and other productions in the years which followed. Adams, Goodman and Sellars repeatedly claimed that they were trying to give equal voice to both Israelis and Palestinians with respect to the political background.[17][18] Some critics and audience members condemned the production as anti-Semitic and appearing to be 'sympathetic' to the hijackers.[19] Lisa Klinghoffer and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, anonymously attended the 1991 world premiere of the opera in New York City. Afterward they said they disapproved of the dramatic portrayal of the events.[20] The dramatic expression of Palestinian historical grievances in a theatrical context was one source of accusations of 'sympathy' with Palestinian terrorism. Others accused the creators of anti-Semitism for their portrayal of fictional Jewish-American neighbours of the Klinghoffers, the Rumors, in a scene in the original version. The couple were characterized in a way many Americans believed to be offensive and inappropriately satirical. Following the American premiere, Adams deleted this scene while revising his opera for all future productions.[21]

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a scheduled performance in November 2001 of extracts from the opera. This was partly in deference to a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who lost a family member on one of the hijacked planes, and also because of the perceived "pro-Palestinian" nature of the work. It was considered too controversial for performance at a time of heightened anti-Muslim feeling in the USA. In a widely read New York Times article, Richard Taruskin defended the orchestra's action, and denounced Adams and the opera for "romanticizing terrorists".[22] Defenders of the opera, including John Rockwell of the New York Times, countered that, by portraying the terrorists as human beings rather than two-dimensional villains, Adams forces the audience to confront the underlying causes of violence, rather than to blame only the brainwashed children of violence.[23]

Adams responded[24] to Taruskin's criticisms on a number of occasions, including this 2004 statement:

"Not long ago our attorney general, John Ashcroft, said that anyone who questioned his policies on civil rights after September 11 was aiding terrorists; what Taruskin said was the aesthetic version of that. If there is an aesthetic viewpoint that does not agree with his, it should not be heard. I find that very disturbing indeed."[25]

In a more academic analysis, Robert Fink countered Taruskin's accusations of anti-Semitism, with particular reference to the deleted scene with the Rumor family. Fink has discussed how the removal of this scene disrupted the original dramaturgical structure of the opera, as the singers of the members of the Rumor family took on symbolically ironic later roles in the opera. Fink further posited that the reaction of American audiences to the portrayal of the Rumor family was partly because it was sociologically accurate. He discussed the scene in the historical context of past depictions in American popular culture of Jewish-American families.[21] A separate academic study by Ruth Sara Longobardi discusses the opera with respect to issues about depictions of Palestinians and Jews. She explores how the use of contemporary media in productions, such as the Penny Woolcock film of the opera, affects perception of the two sides of the political conflict.[26]

The 2009 Juilliard performance aroused controversy again. The school's president, Joseph W. Polisi, responded to a letter to The Juilliard Journal which protested the opera as "a political statement made by the composer to justify an act of terrorism by four Palestinians." He wrote:

"Let me tell you a bit about myself and then about my views of the Adams opera. Before becoming a professional musician, I was formally educated as a political scientist with a concentration on international relations. I am a longtime friend of Israel and have visited the country on numerous occasions to help Israeli artists study and perform in the United States. My King Solomon Award from the America Israel Cultural Foundation is a source of great pride for me. I have also researched and taught about the influences of the First Amendment on the arts and artists in America. My experiences in political science and music have played a powerful role in my thinking about The Death of Klinghoffer.
"Unlike you, I do not see this work as a "justification" of an act of terrorism, but rather a profoundly perceptive and human commentary on a political/religious problem that continues to find no resolution. Such an extraordinary work of art like this must continue to live, no matter how horrific its basic story. I respect your right to protest the opera's topic, but Juilliard and its kindred artistic institutions have to be responsible for maintaining an environment in which challenging, as well as comforting, works of art are presented to the public.
"You end your letter with the word "shame." I believe the "shame" for Juilliard would more likely have occurred if we had not the vision and the courage to present artistic works which we believe to be transformative compositions, worthy of presentation by our students and of reflection by our audiences. If we had decided against producing Adams's opera in an effort to not offend audience members, we would have ignored our mission as an institution and community that teaches and enlightens through the wonder and power of the arts."[27]


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, March 19, 1991
(Conductor: Kent Nagano)
Nonesuch CD recording
(Nonesuch 79281)
Decca DVD
(Decca 000440 074 1899 4)
The Captain of the Achille Lauro baritone James Maddalena James Maddalena Christopher Maltman
The First Officer bass-baritone Thomas Hammons Thomas Hammons Dean Robinson
'Rambo', a terrorist bass-baritone Thomas Hammons Thomas Hammons Leigh Melrose
Swiss grandmother mezzo-soprano Janice Felty Janice Felty Vivian Tierney
Austrian woman mezzo-soprano Janice Felty Janice Felty Nuala Willis
British dancing girl mezzo-soprano Janice Felty Janice Felty Kirsten Blase
Molqi, a terrorist tenor Thomas Young Thomas Young Tom Randle
Mamoud, a terrorist baritone Eugene Perry Eugene Perry Kamel Boutrous
Leon Klinghoffer baritone Sanford Sylvan Sanford Sylvan Sanford Sylvan
Omar, a terrorist mezzo-soprano Stephanie Friedman Stephanie Friedman Emil Marwa (actor);
Susan Bickley (singer, voice-over)
Marilyn Klinghoffer contralto Sheila Nadler Sheila Nadler Yvonne Howard
Chorus of Exiled Palestinians SATB London Opera Chorus London Symphony Chorus
Chorus of Exiled Jews SATB London Opera Chorus London Symphony Chorus


  1. ^ Christiansen, Rupert, "Breaking Taboos". Opera, 54(5), 543-548 (May 2003)
  2. ^ a b Andrew Clements (2002-01-21). "The Death of Klinghoffer (Barbican, London)". The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  3. ^ Ginman, John (March 2004). "Opera as 'Information': The Dramaturgy of The Death of Klinghoffer". Contemporary Theatre Review 14 (1): 51–59. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  4. ^ John Rockwell (1991-03-21). "From an Episode of Terrorism, Adams's 'Death of Klinghoffer'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  5. ^ Edward Rothstein (1991-09-07). "Seeking Symmetry Between Palestinians and Jews". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  6. ^ "Art attack". New Statesman. 2005-10-17. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  7. ^ Keith Potter (2001-02-23). "Klinghoffer resurrected". The Independent. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  8. ^ Andrew Billen (2003-06-02). "Sing it again, Klinghoffer". New Statesman. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  9. ^ Andrew Clark (2005-08-25). "Reality of terrorism on stage". Financial Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  10. ^ Andrew Clements (2005-08-24). "The Death of Klinghoffer (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)". The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  11. ^ Robert Thicknesse (2005-08-24). "The Death of Klinghoffer". The Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  12. ^ Anthony Tommasini (2003-12-05). "Giving Voice To an Act Of Terror". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  13. ^ Anthony Tommasini (2009-02-01). "In a New Generation, a Searing Opera Breaks Free of Polemics". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  14. ^ Sarah Bryan Miller (2011-06-16). "'Death of Klinghoffer' is powerful night at the opera". St Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 
  15. ^ Steve Smith (2011-06-17). "‘Klinghoffer’ Returns, to Be Debated Anew". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 
  16. ^ William Dart (2005-02-18). "Death of Klinghoffer a fearless dissection of terrorist mindset". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  17. ^ "Opera As A Source Of Healing". Newsweek. 1991-03-31. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  18. ^ Michael Walsh (1991-04-01). "Art And Terror in the Same Boat". Time.,9171,972615,00.html. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  19. ^ Edward Rothstein (1991-09-15). "'Klinghoffer' Sinks Into Minimal Sea". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  20. ^ Allan Kozinn (1991-09-11). "Klinghoffer Daughters Protest Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-30. 
  21. ^ a b Fink, Robert (July 2005). "Klinghoffer in Brooklyn Heights". Cambridge Opera Journal 17 (2): 173–213. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  22. ^ Richard Taruskin (2001-12-09). "Music's Dangers And The Case For Control". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-09. 
  23. ^ John Rockwell (2003-12-04). "Is 'Klinghoffer' Anti-Semitic?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-02-02. 
  24. ^ Anna Picard (2002-01-13). "John Adams: 'It was a rant, a riff and an ugly personal attack'". The Independent. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  25. ^ Martin Kettle (2001-12-15). "The witch-hunt". The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-07-22. 
  26. ^ Longobardi, Ruth Sara (2009). "Re-producing Klinghoffer: Opera and Arab Identity before and after 9/11". Journal of the Society for American Music 3 (03): 273–310. Retrieved 2011-01-30. 
  27. ^ Polisi, Joseph W. (February 2009). "Letters to the Editor: "On The Death of Klinghoffer"". Juilliard Journal XXIV (5). Retrieved 2011-01-23. 

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