The Berkeley Symphony's ambitious final concert of the season was given Thursday evening in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program paired Mozart's Requiem with choruses from the controversial 1991 Israel-Palestine political opera, The Death of Klinghoffer by Berkeley composer John Adams who was in attendance.
The major problem for the opera's detractors, who were out in force during the opera's belated New York Metropolitan Opera debut last fall, is that it challenges and complicates the narrative of Evil Terrorist Muslim Maniacs slaughtering Innocent Jewish Victims by depicting the Palestinian terrorists as human beings rather than abstractions. Using the awful incident of a 1980s hijacking of a Mediterranean cruise ship that goes awry, which ends with an elderly, wheelchair-bound, New York Jewish tourist being thrown overboard to his death, the opera examines the victim narratives of both cultures, making it quite clear that this has been accreting over centuries whether the contemporary players are aware of it or not. Another reason for the violent reaction to the opera is that the libretto by the gifted poet Alice Goodman is an insider's jab at the "romantic nationalism" of Zionism. In a great 2012 interview in The Guardian, Goodman relates:
"I saw my [Episcopal spiritual] director yesterday, and I mentioned this [opera] had caused a great amount of controversy and had been very tough and that I hadn't done anything else since and he said, 'Why was that?' And I said, 'Well, because the bad people in it are not entirely bad and the good people are not entirely good.'"
This, she argues, was her mistake: to depict terrorists as human beings and their victims as flawed. In one particularly caustic attack in the New York Times in 2001, Richard Taruskin denounced the opera for "romanticising terrorists". Taruskin noted that Adams had said the opera owed its structure to Bach's Passions. But in Bach's Passions, argued Taruskin, every time Jesus is heard, an aureole of violins and violas gives Christ the musical equivalent of a halo. Klinghoffer has no such halo, while the Palestinian choruses are accompanied by the most beautiful music in the opera.
"What upset Taruskin was giving beautiful music to terrorists," snaps Goodman. "They have to sing ugly music. There has to be the equivalent of a drumroll when [1960s cartoon villain] Snidely Whiplash comes in because – God help us – we can't have complexity. People will love evil if we give terrorists beautiful music to sing and we can't have that, can we? Sorry, I can hear my voice becoming high-pitched and irritable.
"There's a certain romanticism to the hijackers and that's something, again, that Taruskin picks upon. But the trouble is they think romanticism is good. Romanticism good, romanticism attractive. I don't think that. I actually think the most dangerous thing in the world is romantic nationalism. Not religion, but romantic nationalism. And if it's true, it's also true for Israel. Israel is not exempt from the problem I have with romantic nationalism. If it's an evil, it's an evil all over the world."
The opera was co-commissioned by a half dozen opera companies, premiering in Brussels in 1991, going to a few other European locations, and then arriving at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the Klinghoffer family and the Jewish Defense League were out front picketing the performances. From there, the Peter Sellars directed production, with the Mark Morris dance troupe as its luxury ballet contingent, came to San Francisco and Sellars decided to add about two dozen supernumeraries to his very abstract production. Happily, one of those extra numbers playing Achille Lauro hostages was myself, which is how I grew to love the music from the inside out. In truth, the recitative sections moving along the plot didn't strike me as particularly successful, but the many, large choruses commenting poetically on the action were breakthrough music for John Adams, and are still breathtakingly beautiful. They are also harder than hell to perform, which is another reason this piece is never going to be a community opera staple like Carmen.
The San Francisco Opera Chorus in the early 1990s, one of the most sophisticated groups of musical sight-readers I have ever known, required flesh-colored band-aids on their hands with personalized notation to keep up with the rapid shifts in complex time signatures throughout the score. It also did not help that Adams was conducting, a skill he's improved on over the years, but in those days it was pretty rough. Adams also doesn't appreciate or write for big, vibrato filled operatic voices, and the SF Opera Chorus was quintessentially that sound. However, the Chorus eventually gave some of the greatest performances in their long history in this opera, and I've never heard the music sound better, more impassioned or more precise than their rendition.
With the sound of those performances still residing in my brain twenty-plus years later, the Berkeley Symphony performance conducted by Joana Carneiro and the beefed-up University Chorus under Marika Kuzma felt slightly overmatched by this music. It was a joy to hear five of the seven choruses from the opera live, and phrases from them have been suddenly reappearing as odd earworms for the last four days in my brain, but this music can sound so much better. Part of the problem could be the horrible Zellerbach Auditorium acoustics which even the wizards at Meyer Sound cannot mitigate, as hard as they try.
John Adams licenses the Klinghoffer Choruses with the liberating proviso that the presenting musical organization can perform as many or as few of the seven choruses as they want. What I would like to suggest to Adams is that he add to that collection the finale, where Marilyn Klinghoffer sings an aria to The Captain that starts "You embraced them..." and winds around a wordless chorus that is some of my favorite music in the world. It would make for a fitting ending to an abbreviated Klinghoffer Singspiel.