Monday, May 19, 2003


Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams’ courageous opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’, based on the true story of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, has enjoyed a mixed reception since its premiere in Brussels in 1991. During the armed takeover of the Italian cruise ship, American tourist Leon Klinghoffer was murdered and his body thrown overboard in his wheelchair. Adams’ work explores the complex human and political circumstances surrounding this awful incident. The key to its subsequent controversy was the way, in the eyes of some, it enabled the voices of Palestinians to be expressed lyrically and poetically; and the perception of others that it glorified its subject too much. The mixed feelings of the ‘Klinghoffer’ family added to the storm. Charges of anti-semitism and pro-terrorism have abounded, and, no matter how unjustified (and they are) they have stuck.

The degree of vitriol and censorship that has followed ‘Klinghoffer’ is deplorable. The Los Angeles Opera, which co-commissioned the opera, subsequently refused to mount a production in the early 1990s after political pressure. Other orchestras and corporate sponsors then declined to touch it. More recently, the Boston Symphony cancelled performances of the ‘Klinghoffer’ choruses in the wake of 9-11.

Now, however, ‘Klinghoffer’ is undergoing a welcome reappraisal and reawakening. British filmmaker Penny Woolcock’s fine, naturalistic, dramatically multi-layered and musically first-rate movie of the opera was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in February 2003. It had its debut at the San Francisco Film Festival in April, and at the Lincoln Centre on 13 May. Now Channel 4, the UK company that backed the production, will give it its British network TV premiere next weekend.

The Los Angeles Times has already declared that the movie marks out ‘Klinghoffer’ as the first great cinematic opera – a real boost to the whole genre (see photo here). Mark Swed called it “brilliant, morally courageous and overwhelmingly moving.” This is also the prospect raised by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian and more cautiously by Rupert Christiansen in the conservative Daily Telegraph.

Unfortunately I missed the first UK concert performance (at the Barbican, with Leonard Slatkin in January 2002). I have very much appreciated the recorded version and I am anticipating the TV screening with some relish. Blast Films and Channel 4 explain: “Penny Woolcock, who also directs, has written a screen adaptation of the opera to include a fictional account of the lives of the hijackers and incorporating narratives based on the historical context of the political situation (the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel and the exile of the Palestinians). The film includes archive footage from the Zionist and Palestinian political history. John Adams himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a modified score for this adaptation.”

See also the highlight stories in The Guardian, Variety, Media Week and Yahoo!. A new ‘Klinghoffer’ production opens at the Prague National Theatre on 22 May.

‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ shows on Channel 4 at 18:55 on 25 May 2003.

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