The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera by the contemporary American composer John Adams to an English libretto by the poet Alice Goodman, based on a historical incident. It was first performed in Brussels, Belgium, in 1991.
The opera tells the story of the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the resulting death of Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. It was the center of a great controversy when it was performed in the United States in late 1991 and early 1992. A film version, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adams, was directed by Penny Woolcock for the British television station Channel 4 in 2003. There was also a performance by Scottish Opera at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival.
The Death of Klinghoffer is written in a style similar to the minimalist music made popular by composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Adams is inspired by the sacred oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach, in which intervallic relationships such as affekt are used to evoke certain emotions. Other musical inspirations come from Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Schoenberg's use of atonality and of sprechstimme provides comic relief when sung by the character of a flamboyant, sneering Austrian woman. The drama is portrayed primarily in long monologues by individual characters, with commentary by the chorus, which does not take part in the action. The monologues occasionally overlap during moments of heightened drama, adding to the confusion of the scene.
The opera's choral passages have been performed and recorded separately as Choruses from Klinghoffer
The Klinghoffer Controversy
In a page-long article in the December 9, 2001, New York Times Arts and Leisure section, a noted musicologist, Richard Taruskin of The University of California denounced the opera and accused John Adams of "romanticizing terrorists." As he saw it, the opera tended to give many listeners the impression that the Palestinian terrorists were presented as men who were fighting for a noble cause. Many people held the belief that the opera was anti-Semitic, and it was picketed by members of the Jewish Information League at its premiere in San Francisco, California. After September 11, 2001, the work was also criticized as being anti-American, as Taruskin stated that "If terrorism is to be defeated, world public opinion has to be turned decisively against it . . . no longer romanticising terrorists as Robin Hoods and no longer idealising their deeds as rough poetic justice".
Fans of the work tend to disagree with this assessment, since however much sympathy the audience is led to feel for one or two of the hijackers, it cannot help but condemn the terrorist action as a whole. Klinghoffer himself is murdered point-blank on stage, and his wife's horror upon finding out about his murder is conveyed viscerally to the audience as a final impression. Those terrorists who describe their history and motives speak in absolutes of morality, and any connection the audience may feel to their humanity is quickly drowned in words that define the absence of humanity:
Many critics of the work feel that simply by allowing terrorists to be portrayed as human beings on stage, Adams has gone too far. However, supporters of the work express that by showing us the terrorists as human beings rather than two-dimensional villains, Adams forces us to confront the societal problems that cause violence, rather than blame only the brainwashed children of that violence.