By Thomas May, program annotator for the Berkeley Symphony
Born on February 15, 1947, in Worcester, Massachusetts, John Adams resettled in the Bay Area in the early 1970s and currently resides in Berkeley. He composed The Death of Klinghoffer, his second opera, in 1990-91 on a commission from a consortium of opera companies that included San Francisco Opera. Peter Sellars served as the stage director, and Alice Goodman wrote the libretto—both collaborators having been part of the original team for Nixon in China, Adams’ first opera.
First performance: the complete opera was premiered at the Théâtre de la Monnaie on March 19, 1991, in Brussels, with former Berkeley Symphony music director Kent Nagano conducting. In addition to mixed chorus, the Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer are scored for 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, 2 keyboard samplers, and strings. Duration ca: 30 minutes.
In 1987, the creative team of John Adams, poet-librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars together introduced a novel paradigm for American opera with the premiere of Nixon in China. They developed it further in their subsequent collaboration, The Death of Klinghoffer, which was first staged in 1991. The results surprised audiences who anticipated in Nixon a Saturday Night Live-style parody or, in Klinghoffer, a melodramatic thriller.
Adams, already pigeonholed by the convenient (but inaccurate) label of “Minimalism,” was once more simple-mindedly categorized: this time as the purveyor of “CNN opera.” Yet it’s precisely what is missing in our era of instant information and clickbait headlines that is at the heart of these works. They attempt to explore what is behind the news—not to confirm what we already know.
“I’m not interested in lecturing my audience,” says Adams. “What appeals to me in subjects like the Nixon-Mao meeting, or the Achille Lauro incident, or the atomic bomb, is their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time.”
While Nixon playfully alludes to the conventions of grand opera, The Death of Klinghoffer turns to the older model of Baroque oratorio, above all the Passions of Bach, with their intercutting of individual and collective points of view. In order to give voice to the intense, conflicting emotions of Klinghoffer, Adams was driven to enrich his musical language with melodic elaboration and a darker and more complex harmonic palette. It’s no coincidence that the polarizations inherent in his subject led Adams to transform his musical style.
As in a Passion, choruses serve as a key architectural element to shape Klinghoffer. The opera includes a total of seven choruses. Outside the context of a performance of the full opera, Adams specifies that the choruses “may be performed in their entirety or in any grouping.” For this performance we hear five of the choruses (the Ocean and Desert Choruses are omitted). While each has a distinct, self-contained character, the choruses also complement each another and cast the narrative they encircle into a new light. They introduce a constellation of opposed pairs that also reveal shared characteristics: Palestinians and Jews (both exiled), night and day (whose appearance ushers in dramatic turning points), and ocean and desert (both revealing God’s presence in unexpected ways); by itself, the Chorus of Hagar and the Angel juxtaposes nature against the supernatural.
Along with their structural role, the choruses express a variety of dramatic perspectives. Sometimes they take on the guise of a Greek chorus commenting, at a removal, on the action—both on what has happened and in anticipation of events to come—but they are not limited to this. At other times the choruses enact miniature dramas of their own or establish a larger context for the specific drama.
In lieu of an overture, the two-act opera begins with a prologue comprising the paired Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and Chorus of Exiled Jews. Both choruses, of equal length, begin simply and softly but go on to portray dramas in microcosm through shifting musical textures. Unison women’s voices take up their fragile lament in F minor to begin the opera. Immediately, the chorus encapsulates one of the fundamental tensions that will course through Klinghoffer: the tension between the cold, harsh facts of the present (the “news”) and the timeless cultural memory (the realm of myth) whereby we try to make sense of individual experience.
So, too, Adams’ sparse vocal line begins to unfold in poetic elaborations spurred by memory. Yet the memory takes a violent turn as the music speeds up in a crescendo of terrifying rage for full chorus. The Exiled Jews begin their chorus in a melancholy G minor. The dynamic level remains subdued, but, after opening with four-part chorus, Adams varies the choral texture between men and women to dramatize the allegorical dialogue of Goodman’s text. Close, fragrant harmonies underline the imagery of enduring love.
Following a pivotal scene between one of the terrorists and the ship’s captain, the Night Chorus erupts to conclude the first act with high-voltage intensity. It recalls the turbulent music that ended the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. With the unleashed pace and fury of a baroque rage aria, its dark sound omits violins. Adams remarks that he thought of “the image of a pogrom, the terrible fear of a hunted person” as he wrote. The fear becomes literally wordless in the churning ostinato intoned by basses, while the dissonant total fabric of chorus and orchestra looks ahead to some of the most chilling moments in Doctor Atomic.
The Chorus of Hagar and the Angel serves as a sort of prelude beginning the second act (the original production, in Brussels, featured an extensive choreographic counterpart by Mark Morris). It recounts a core narrative of exile, as Abraham reluctantly sends Hagar and Ishmael, the son he has fathered with her, into the wilderness. Adams suggests the anxiety of being on the run with a chasing bass figure, but he mixes this with a hint of the mystical in the otherworldly, strangely accented countermelody of the digital keyboard and piccolo. At the angel’s revelation ending the chorus, the chasing figure finally comes to rest on a peaceful cadence.
The Day Chorus is the last in the opera, occurring right after Leon Klinghoffer’s murder. Goodman’s poetry is at its most oracular here. Adams anchors the T.S. Eliot-like obliqueness of her detailed imagery in music of haunting simplicity, combining elegy and meditation.
The work of memory and mourning has only begun with the attempt to come to terms with grief. Instead of closure, the accompanying musical pattern continues in an implied fade-out.