Long Beach Opera: Controversy Dominates ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

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Photos courtesy of Long Beach Opera.

Controversy is a strange beast.

In the midst of a perfectly civil conversation, a few words (usually grounded in politics or religion) can turn things towards the worst. In our world, one full of different cultures and backgrounds, there are and may forever remain differences that some will consider inexcusable.

The tragedy is that most “inexcusable” issues have their roots in semantics and conceptual differences, whereas the components that make up our human existence, on a grander and more profound scale, are things that lie at the core of us all.

LBOperaDeath03Why we continue to let our spiritual and political beliefs separate us from our fellow humans instead of choosing to see what unites us, is one of the profoundest questions of this life, and one that lies at the core of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which is now handsomely mounted by the Long Beach Opera and running for one more performance this next Saturday at the Terrace Theater in Downtown Long Beach.

Originally premiering in Brussels in 1991, this production was first staged at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011 and currently marks the Southern California premiere of the opera. Based on the infamous hijacking of an Italian cruise ship in 1985, the opera uses the Palestinian-led murder of an American Jew in a wheelchair (Leon Klinghoffer) as the central point for a meditation on not only the Palestine and Israeli conflict, but also as an examination of world cultures, the ways in which they are similar, and the brutal ways in which we refuse to acknowledge these facts.

John Adams’s score, as with all good operas, is the core of the work. The music exists in a middle zone between the minimalist sounds of Adams’s contemporaries and the classical, late-romantic style of opera the world is most familiar with. This means the music goes in and out of passages that are richly melodic and impassioned, as well as those that are more rhythmic and reserved.

This opera is not afraid of silence, and the cool intensity it brings creates a chilling, fragile atmosphere that pulsates throughout the work, and only erupts through the surface when it can no longer be contained. Adams’s music for the chorus is some of the opera’s most beautiful, and as the chorus transforms throughout the course of the opera, commenting on the history of the people and ideas this work is about, I often felt on the verge of being fully transported. 

The libretto by Alice Goodman is equally as versatile as Adams’s score. Ranging back and forth between poetic and narrative, the libretto establishes a meta-reality in which the opera takes place, with passages of beautiful poetry up against more straightforward scenes of conversation and character reflection. While this can at times be off-putting and even confusing, the overall effect, especially when paired with Adams’ lush and shifting score, is effective and provocative.

Nevertheless, I often found the overt poetry of the chorus to be a little too dense and flowery to my liking, in spite of the fact that the music they were singing was unquestionably the opera’s most beautiful. It is the arias of this work, sung by one character to another, or directly to the audience, that I found to be the most moving. As with many works of theater, it is often one character sharing their inner life and feelings candidly and unadorned, that proves to be the most breathtaking and insightful.

James Robinson’s direction is seemingly more minimalist than some previous productions, a fact that sometimes either confuses the action or hits its audience over the head with the opera’s overt symbolism.

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By dressing both the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews that open the show so similarly, Robinson both confuses and enhances the point he is trying to make. I understand that by dressing both choruses so much alike, Robinson was attempting to draw lines between the similarities of both cultures, but in an opera this far reaching, clarity is an issue of utmost importance. As the opera progressed and the chorus adapted its many other roles, the direction felt much clearer, though the continual reappearance of a young Palestinian and Jewish boy as a metaphor for the future of both religious worlds comes across as heavy handed.

More often than not however, his more reserved tone, when up against the ominous, striking ship-panel-sets of Allen Moyer, and the evocative projections of Greg Emetaz, creates a nearly perfect balance of ritual and intimacy. Also, his treatment of all narrative material is pitch perfect, giving each character their own nuance and elevating the drama of each of their stories appropriately. The only exception to this was the second act scene with the “British Dancing Girl” which comes out of nowhere so quickly, and feels so awkward in tone up against the rest of the material, that no matter what anyone were to do with her song, I still fear it would stick out like a sore thumb.

Robinson’s direction is aided by an incredibly talented cast that not only sings but acts the material beautifully.

LBOperaDeath02Jason Switzer’s Mamoud, looks more like a friend of mine’s father than a terrorist, but he none the less provides a conflicted and empathetic delivery of both “Now It Is Night” and “Those Birds Flying Above Us.” Meanwhile, Lee Gregory is a bit stoic as The Captain, but he sings his material with beautiful control and passion. Although she is forced to perform the aforementioned role of the British Dancing Girl, Danielle Marcelle Bond also performs the rolls of the Swiss Grandmother and the Austrian Woman, and it is wonderful to witness such a gifted singer and character actress play a multitude of roles here.

Peabody Southwell’s Omar is heartbreaking in her rendition of “It Is As If Our Earthly Life Were Spent Miserably,” which also provides some of Robinson’s most metaphorically provocative staging. Robin Buck is equally persuasive as Leon Klinghoffer, with a rendition of the “Aria of the Falling Body” that hovers over the evening like the ghost it hopes to evoke. Suzan Hanson is perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening, however, with a portrayal of Harilyn Klinghoffer (Klinghoffer’s wife) that is humane and believable. When she delivers “You Embraced Them,” after being informed of her husband’s death by the captain, the opera discovers its tragic beating heart.

By attempting to take a neutral stance in discussing this very topical subject matter and by giving equal voice to the Jewish, American, and Palestinian characters of this story, the opera has not surprisingly fallen under a great amount of controversy over the course of its 23-year lifespan. It has been viewed by some as being overly sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorists and as anti-Semitic towards its treatment of the Jews.

To my viewing, the opera treats its subject matter with extreme even-handedness. True, the terrorists in the opera are treated like human beings, with histories, passions and feelings, but none of this justifies the inhumane and inexcusable act that they or any terrorist group perform. The opera also never tries to explain why they choose to kill who they do, or to justify the act of killing.

The opera is unquestionably anti-violent and pro-humanist and if either of those things sounds offensive to you, art is likely not something that holds much importance to your life. Klinghoffer is the sort of work that makes its audience ask questions and continue dialogues on their own after they leave the theater, which to my mind should be viewed as more heroic than controversial.

Terrorism is an epidemic that is not even remotely close to being over.

It would be irresponsible for a work of art based on actual happenings such as these to behave as if this were not the case. Klinghoffer, with poetry and bravery, luckily gives its subject matter the patience and magnitude it deserves.

The Death of Klinghoffer will be performed Saturday, March 22, at 2PM at the Terrace Theater, located at 300 E. Ocean Blvd. Tickets can be purchased here.

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