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Night at the Opera: The Death of Klinghoffer

I had a good week last week, managing to squeeze in two exhibitions, a ballet and opera. Well, it’s all a bit like London buses really – you wait for ages and none come along; then when one comes, three follow immediately behind. So it was that last Friday night, I rounded off the week with a chance visit to go to the Opera – I say chance because I stumbled across a very generous online deal which enabled me to get prize seats at the London Coliseum at a fraction of the proper price. It was therefore in two minds that I went along on Friday – on one hand it’s always great to see an opera, whatever that opera may be, but on the other hand, this mega online deal coupled with a decided lack of sell out status made me a little concerned that the show I was going to see wouldn’t even be worth the £25 I had paid. But there was no need for concern.

The opera was The Death of Klinghoffer, brought to us by the English National Opera, a performance which marks 21 years since the controversial opera was written by John Adams, but which has never before been performed in London, despite having originally received the backing of the likes of Glyndebourne opera. The reason for the reticence on the part of the UK’s opera companies to put on the opera is because of the controversy surrounding its depiction and narrative. The opera focuses on the fractious relationship between Israelites and Palestinians, with the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner by four members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as its linchpin. Such is the apparent controversy that protests were expected on opening night – and protests they had, albeit just one lone man with a small placard. The truth is, this opera, written by John Adams, isn’t really overly controversial. It’s more of a docu-opera, relaying the story of the cruise liner’s hijacking with its dramatic and fatal ending, and in doing this, it is like the most popular opera by Puccini or Wagner. In relaying the story of the hijacking, it attempts to explore, to some degree, the historical background behind the tensions in Israel. But both sides are given an opportunity to express their point of view, as a chorus of Palestinian exiles metamorphose seamlessly into a chorus of Jewish exiles, each singing about their respective grievances, the misery of being caught in a relentless religious and political territorial battle. To some extent, the Palestinian voice predominates, but then the hijackers were Palestinian, and therefore it is unsurprising that their story comes over stronger. Past criticism has been levelled at the opera’s humanising of the Palestinian terrorists. Nonetheless there is no reason why humanising the story of the terrorists should cause offence. Rather, it helps us, the onlooker, to better understand the motivations behind a terrorist in an age when terrorist atrocities are alive and kicking.

Rather than cause offence in its depiction of this contemporary struggle, the opera was informative as well as emotionally engaging. As a documentary, the opera was a real eye-opener into the Israeli crisis – while I have been constantly aware of the tensions throughout my life, I have never really sought to analyse, in any detail, the routes of the problem. While this opera undertook something of a superficial narrative of the background conflict (a scene from the original score which explored the history deeper had been cut out by the ENO’s production) it nevertheless focused the mind on the complexities of the historical fractions, the religious conflict and the political input which has incrementally shaped and augmented the tensions. As a tragic story, the opera was marvellously engaging. The most successful element was the score, masterfully composed with a continuous clash of emotional discordant chromatic melodies, whose pace and melodical form seemed to relentlessly crescendo rather than develop predictably towards a climax, leaving the audience sitting on the edge of their seats, perfectly resonating the feeling of interminable tension and terror which must have been felt by the passengers of the Achille Lauro when the liner was hijacked off the coast of Egypt.

Successful too was the use of the scenery to mirror the intensity of emotional pull, with versatile concrete panels being used at the backdrop to cruise-liner projections at one moment, and then, at the climax of the opera, closing in on one of the leads, Marilyn Klinghoffer (played by Michaela Martens) as she was told that her husband, Leon Klinghoffer (played by Alan Opie) had been killed by the terrorists, and his body (and wheelchair) dumped overboard. As the news of the murder begins to sink in, and the score reaches levels of of devastating chromatic intensity, the large concrete walls start to close in on Marilyn, decreasing the space around her as she desperately searches the barren concrete surfaces for an opening, a way out – a powerful metaphor for that moment of devastating tragedy, when you receive the worst possible news and seek any possible escape from this new, tragic reality.

But for me, the real star of the Opera was the chorus, playing both Palestinian and Jewish exiles. Countless singers harmonised together to deliver with spine tingling intensity, effectively projecting Palestinian discontent as the anguish of mourners develops into the blinded anger of militants, while amongst the Jewish exiles, a deep melancholy transforms gradually into hope as lost generations start to build a new future within Israel, as represented by the gradual addition of one olive tree after another across the stage. I was equally moved though by a scene in which the youngest of the terrorists, at merely 17, was recollecting an encounter with his mother, where, with chilling fervency, she told him that the only place for him was to enter Paradise through an act of jihad, thus prompting him to perform the murder after which the opera gains its name.

On the downside was the libretto, by Alice Goodman, often vague and very repetitive, and generally a little too slow. At one point, one of the terrorist was listing every bird he had ever seen – the melody he was singing suggested a dramatic speech which was central to his motivations as a hijacker. However the libretto seemed to belong to another story entirely. Goodman did however redeem herself through the dramatic declarations of the chorus, and through the highly resonant small-talk babble of the terrified passengers as they tried to take their mind off the terror all around them. While their words were practically meaningless, they added realism and tension to the scene, facilitating the narrative as a true reflection of this time of human terror.

There is no doubting the fact that this opera deals with sensitive issues which are perhaps even more alive today, post 9/11, 3/11 and 7/7, than they were when the work was first written. But it is refreshing to see a new opera which successfully utilises the perfectly versatile, inherently dramatic medium of opera to narrate a story of contemporary relevance. Seeing the same old Mozart or Puccini is all very well, but what lessons can really be learnt from these tales for the modern day?

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