Saturday Art: John Adams’ Controversial The Death of Klinghoffer Opens Today at the English National Opera
I. Derided by notable music historian Richard Taruskin in a New York Times essay famous among new music writers, as an opera that “cater[s] to so many of [Western Europeans'] favorite prejudices — anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois –” and by Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa as “exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic,” San Francisco composer John Adams‘ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, may be his greatest achievement.
Commissioned in 1989 by a consortium of five opera companies in the U.S. and Europe, some of the companies reneged when they realized the controversies the resultant opera had brought about. Since then, most of the opera’s productions have been met with combinations of demonstrations, dueling op-eds in the news, and fairly large audiences, as Adams’ music is some of the most vital now being written or played. Had the controversies and accusations surrounding this music drama been attached to a lesser composer, it would have ended any possibilities of future commissions, fellowships and awards. Fortunately, John Adams was too famous, too honest and too candid for this to have been the result. Alice Goodman, the work’s librettist, was somewhat less well-known, so wasn’t let off so easily:
Goodman and the rest of the creative team – composer Adams, director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris – had expected, and perhaps even courted, controversy. (They were, after all, following their 1987 triumph Nixon in China, another opera based on a news event, albeit a much less provocative one.) Adams had been disappointed that the world premiere weeks earlier in Brussels had been so tepidly received. The reaction in New York more than compensated: it proved a devastating shock.
“I couldn’t get work after Klinghoffer,” says Goodman. “I was uncommissionable. John was almost uncommissionable.” Adams’s next work was a violin concerto. “No words,” says Goodman. [emphasis added]