Reflections on The Death of Klinghoffer


When asked about her libretto for the opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman, whose voice has not been heard nearly enough in the current discussions, said:

Our world has had, since before I was born, histories of people dehumanizing other people, of which the Jewish people have been the most notable of subjects, of victims. And so I think that it is absolutely paramount that civilization, that people who claim to be humane, civilized, moral, and, as it were, looking to a higher power, should know better than to wish to dehumanize anyone and should be able to acknowledge also the darkness that is in each of us. So, in other words, there is nothing that is human that should be foreign to us. That’s one of the things that art exists to express.

In the same interview, Tom Morris, director of the Metropolitan Opera’s production, said we must reflect “on the points at which the basic rules of humanity are broken, even though the people who are breaking them are human. That’s the paradox.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more aware of the ambiguities and complexities of life. The question for me now is not how to straighten out the crooked lines—in the end, straight lines are a mirage—but how to make appropriate judgments and, where need be, take action, despite the lack of clarity that persists. So, when Goodman and Morris speak of the “darkness that is in each of us,” and the human “paradox,” I feel I know what they mean.

As I listened to the character Mamoud (one of the hijackers) sing Now it is night, I wasn’t surprised (though that doesn’t mean I’m not dismayed), that he was able to move so readily from contemplating love songs on the radio to recalling the excitement of firing his first gun. I was reminded, among other things, of a young workman who was at my house the day the Newtown Connecticut shooting took place. He told me he was a devout Christian and felt terrible about what had occurred, yet his most impassioned expressions related to his worry that the shooting would give rise to renewed efforts for gun control. As he described the thrill of shooting dozens of rapid-fire rounds at the local gun range, his whole body shook with exhilaration. My attempts to reason with him were ineffectual and weak, which made me think of the Captain’s response to Mamoud (I think if you could talk like this) and Mamoud’s reply:


I think if you could talk like this
Sitting among your enemies
Peace would come. Now from day to day
Evil grows exponentially
Laying a weight upon the tongue.
Violence speaks a single long
Sentence inflicted and endured
In Hell, by those who have despaired.


The day that I
And my enemy
Sit peacefully
Each putting his case
And working towards peace
That day our hope dies
And I shall die too.

There are countless paradoxes and complexities like this one throughout the opera, yet out of that, and not despite it, the opera’s moral compass is unwaveringly sound.

At the beginning of Tom Morris’s production, the curtain rises on a group of people sitting quietly in dusky light. They are recalling their father’s house, which had been razed by the Israelis in 1948.

Coolness rose like a wave
From our pure well.
No one was turned away.
The doorstep had worn down:
I see in my mind’s eye
A crescent moon.

In setting Alice Goodman’s text, John Adams, the opera’s composer, at first accompanies the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians with strumming chords, quiet strings, and gentle flutes. Soprano and high alto voices flow along the sounds of “cool” and “moon.” This is peaceable mourning, but it is not to last.

Of that house, not a wall
In which a bird might nest
Was left to stand. . . .

Tenors and basses join the chorus, and the flow of text breaks into single words: “Of” “that” “house.” The orchestral textures change and thicken by degrees. Mirroring the text, the music grows increasingly loud and frantic, transforming contemplation of loss into implacable, destructive rage.

Let the supplanter look
Upon his work. Our faith
Will take the stones he broke
And break his teeth.

The music of the second Prologue, the Chorus of Exiled Jews, is meditative and restrained. The everyday scene the text depicts in its opening lines is freighted with unaccountable loss.

When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left,
and, of course, no luggage. My empty hands shall
signify this passion, which itself remembers.

The music unfolds slowly, entwined with words that cherish memory and place.

To me you are a land of Jerusalem stone;
your scars are holy places. There, under my hands,
the last wall of the Temple. There
the Dome of the Rock. And there the apartments,
the forest planted in memory . . .

Onstage, people gather in groups, bound to one another by the common task of planting saplings in remembrance of loved ones they’ve lost.

Your neighbor, the one who let me in,
she was brought up on stories of our love.

I’ve listened to these choruses countless times. I’ve read and re-read the libretto, and I’ve seen the Met’s production twice. I saw the 1991 production of the opera when it came to New York and Penny Woolcock’s film as well. I was ready to think I’d plumbed the depths of The Death of Klinghoffer to the point where I knew what could be known about it. But it wasn’t so, and I now know it will never be so.

This is an opera that raises many questions—important ones, in my view. For one, what makes some who have been aggrieved turn toward terror and destruction, while others turn back again and again and despite all odds toward life? The opera’s creators have recognized there are no ready answers. The words of Alice Goodman’s searching, poetic libretto reach to the core of what it means to be human, including the “darkness that is in each of us” that is not—and should not be—easy to embrace.


Postscript: In my comment here, I note Alex Ross’s review of the Met’s production. So as to “archive” them with the post, there are four reviews of the Met’s production that I’ll link here, each of which offers a thoughtful response to the Met production on its merits: Alex RossGeorge Grella, Anthony Tommasini, Mark Swed, and William Braun.

Listening List

On Spotify: The Death of Klinghoffer

On YouTube:

Chorus of Exiled Palestinians

Chorus of Exiled Jews


Credits: The source for the photograph at the head of the post may be found here. Alice Goodman’s libretto, from which the quotations in italics were drawn, may be found here. The remaining quotations are from the sources linked in the text.


12 thoughts on “Reflections on The Death of Klinghoffer

  1. Friko

    I have not heard the opera in its entirety, thank you for these two excerpts both of which I find deeply moving.

    I cannot and don’t want to add any platitudes about the plight of Jews and Palestinians; much has been written and discussed and there have been multitudes of ‘peace negotiations’, all to no avail. Will there ever be peace? For the sake of the people of both nations one must continue to hope, I suppose.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: I am so sorry it’s not possible for you and so many to see, as well as hear, these choruses–and the whole of–the Met’s production. I, too, find it impossible to comment on these issues without it sounding like just another platitude, which is one of the many reasons I so appreciated Adams’s and Goodman’s intelligent and nuanced approach.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    Have you watched the Roosevelts doc on PBS? There was a lot about Theodore I hadn’t known, so much to admire, such an astonishing, exceptional human being. And the dichotomies! He really got the National Park Service going, and yet he killed countless animals. And when he rushed off to kill men he seemed to express the same bloodlust.

    I admire your humanity, Sue. Your humble attitude toward this opera is a testament to its power as art. These two choruses are beautiful; I need to become better acquainted with this music.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I haven’t yet seen the Roosevelts documentary and am very much looking forward to it. I know some of TR’s story, and agree with you entirely in what you describe of him. As I noted to Friko, I am so sorry it’s not possible for you to see the Met’s production of this opera, too. I think you would have some wonderful insights. Here is a link to the seven choruses, which I think make a good place to start in exploring more, if you’d like:

  3. David N

    I do feel that the best of Klinghoffer is in those two choruses at the beginning, though there are many admirable touches throughout. Maybe I need to see it again – the pulled livescreening has deprived us of the chance for now. But I agree with the way you’ve so eloquently put it, Alice’s lines are so rich – she was to Adams what Hofmannsthal was to Strauss, or Auden/Kallman to Stravinsky. All the more’s the pity that the collaboration didn’t continue. Not an easy lady in person, though.

    Apropos the darkness in all of us, one of the many new ways of looking at opera Graham Vick taught us in the class last night was about the limits of a ‘brand’ singer: he praised Domingo’s Otello to the skies, but said that ultimately he was too safe – he wouldn’t touch on the evil that took hold of the character. Which was why he thought an authentic, less finished performer might bring more to a role than an accomplished singer-actor.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Vick’s comment on Domingo as Otello is, not surprisingly, insightful. (I actually saw Domingo in the role—at the time, that was so thrilling, I didn’t reach to evaluating anything about the nuance of his performance.) I’m of course struck by your librettist-composer comparisons. It does seem to me that Adams has few, if any, contemporary peers in his ability to set music to highly poetic text. For that reason, among so many others, to have lost Goodman as a librettist is a tragedy.

      The opening choruses do definitely display the power of the opera, though I would characterize them as only the first instance of the opera’s accumulating power to the final aria, which is utterly shattering. (It’s hard for me to imagine anyone bettering Michaela Martens’s portrayal of Marilyn Klinghoffer.) Beyond the compelling music and libretto, I think Tom Morris’s production deserves enormous credit as well. What he does with the production makes abundantly clear his deep understanding of the opera and his ability to communicate that understanding visually. (It’s not that I think the opera and the production are beyond critique on aesthetic grounds, of course, but rather that almost all of the criticism I’ve seen has been totally off the mark.) I hope that another venue will present this production live (and record it for HD presentation and DVD) so you’ll have a chance to see it for yourself.

      1. David N

        Indeed – good as Catherine Wyn-Rogers was in Marilyn’s final scene, it didn’t work for me then. I need to sit down with the Woolcock DVD, for a start. And the difference a flat-out-intense production makes can convince one entirely – I watched the Sellars DVD of Doctor Atomic and it was a completely different work from the one I’d seen at ENO, infinitely more highly charged throughout.

        Re Friko’s words, I fear there will never be peace – not, at least, until the primal wrong of land seizure is addressed. It amazes me that in the emotional fire people lose sight of that. But it’s the same now with Russians re Putin’s landgrab: they simply won’t accept that all his troubles now spring from the simple breaking of at least half a dozen treaties. Meanwhile, things in Jerusalem just get worse. It seemed like a psychotic city when I was there, though absolutely fascinating and outwardly incredibly beautiful in parts, not least the Dome of the Rock.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: On your point that “the difference a flat-out-intense production makes can convince one entirely,” I viewed again the first two choruses in the Woolcock film on preparing this post, and, even though I found that film a moving portrayal and want to revisit it at some point, I was interested to realize how much more powerful I felt Morris’s realization was. In some ways, although Woolcock was certainly drawing from Goodman’s libretto in choosing the focus for what she filmed, the film seemed to me to work against the text in certain respects, particularly in the second chorus, but also in the first. As best I can describe it, she seemed to focus on certain aspects of the text, rather than supporting the ethos of the whole, and perhaps more importantly, she seemed to superimpose her own narrative on the more oratorio-like approach of the choruses. Morris, instead, chose a more stylized presentation (than Woolcock’s, not generally speaking), mixing realism with stunning metaphoric elements.

          There were occasions in the opera, one scene particularly, where I felt Morris veered too much into a “realistic” newscast-style presentation, but overall, I felt a thoughtful balance was maintained. Alex Ross, in his review, points to, among many for me, two particularly powerful moments: “Morris knows when to clear away the clutter and give us stark, elemental images: a Mediterranean sun blazing in the sky, an old man in a wheelchair on deck, a young man inching forward with a gun. Most haunting was the moment when the terrorists depart: they walk off the stage and trudge up the aisle, exposed under a harsh spotlight, and stripped of whatever glamour they had acquired in their minds.” The second time I attended, I was close to the aisle down which they walked, and Ross’s description gets it just right, as he does, by my lights, virtually everything else in this review. The one thing on which I might differ, though I understand his point, is on the imbalance in the structure resulting from removal of the family scene that had initially been interpolated between the first choruses. My own thought is that a trickier problem to resolve, and I think not fully resolved in this production, was the potentially static nature of the opening scene, in which the Captain and others relate what happened in retrospect.

          As for the situation “on the ground” in that part of the world, yes, it just goes on and on, one horror after another without relief. It’s hard even to have hope for the possibility of a resolution that will last.

  4. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    there are always so many aspects to consider in your blogposts, so many good points, well written, that one wants to answer to many of them – then there comes a purr from my coffe-tiger – off I run…
    The fascination of evil – husband made it the topic of one seminar (and I was glad I wasn’t a student – I even refuse to see a horror-film, never will). Though I saw the point when watching ‘Clockwork Orange’. In real life I do not see it, those aesthetics.)
    We are always baffled about the right to own guns in America. But I won’t judge, how can I.
    In Berlin we have a lot of juvenile violence around the Alexanderplatz – they use knives, the effect is the same: death. “Darkness that is in each of us,” – true.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: You bring an interesting perspective, as always. In Alice Goodman’s comments in the NPR interview I link (, starting at about 13:33), she perceptively referred to the hijackers as romantic young men, half in love with death. Though I can somewhat grasp this intellectually, at bottom, for me, this urge to destroy is unfathomable. There are many nuanced elements to the opera–I hope that’s clear. One I found particularly potent was the honoring of positive formation of community and of the small wonders and travails of daily life, as exemplified in many ways, including, powerfully, in the characterizations of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer and the Captain. (As for “the right to bear arms,” don’t feel alone in being baffled. The meaning of the Constitution’s second amendment has been distorted into something unrecognizable, at least to me.)

  5. shoreacres

    While I support the right of people to possess guns for hunting or protection, I’m also willing to acknowledge that the misuse of guns (in a multitude of ways) is a horror. I suppose I’d say the issue isn’t the gun, per se, but the use we make of them, and the deadly impulses whose expression they facilitate.

    For example, when I was living in Liberia, pre-coup and pre-civil war, there was violence all around. There was political violence, violence used as a means of intimidation, violence as an adjunct to power. I saw some terrible things, and heard reports of worse. In every case, I remember the weapon of choice being a machete or a knife. Political upheaval arrived hand-in-hand with more sophisticated weaponry, but prior to that time, the machete was adequate. If a machete wasn’t at hand, staking down a victim in the path of army ants to be eaten alive was slower, but foolproof.

    Who could do such a thing? we ask. Who could do any of the things that are done in this world?
    That question brings me back around to Alice Goodman, and this: “people who claim to be humane, civilized, moral, and, as it were, looking to a higher power, should know better than to wish to dehumanize anyone and should be able to acknowledge also the darkness that is in each of us.”

    My first thought when I read that was, “But it’s not a matter of knowledge. It’s a matter of will. And reshaping the will, transforming the darkness that’s within us is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. It’s precisely at that point, I think, that art becomes so important. “The Death of Klinghoffer” can touch us in ways that a thousand “shoulds” and “oughts” never will. Not everyone will be touched by “Klinghoffer,” of course, but everyone can be touched by something. Or so I believe

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: You are always to be counted on for a thoughtful comment, and this is no exception. I’m particularly struck by your point that “reshaping the will, transforming the darkness that’s within us is one of the most difficult tasks in the world.” Goodman, who describes herself as having “had a proper Jewish upbringing and education” (she is now an Anglican priest), in responding to a question posed to her in the NPR interview, said, “When I was in religious school, one of the stories we were told was about the liberation of concentration camp in which was held the great German rabbi Leo Baeck. . . . [The army] who liberated it offered to turn the SS guards over to the newly freed inmates to do with as they wished, and Leo Baeck, who was held as a leader, and rightly so, said ‘No, we do not want to be like them.'”

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