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
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 Ross, George Grella, Anthony Tommasini, Mark Swed, and William Braun.
On Spotify: The Death of Klinghoffer
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.