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The Death of Klinghoffer: Hell's Bells All Right

Ed Rampell: What makes Death of Klinghoffer's presentation of Palestinian grief onstage so powerful and provocative is that Americans so rarely have an opportunity to experience the Palestinian point of view in a live artistic venue, whereas theatrical renditions of Jewish suffering are comparatively commonplace.
Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Ensemble

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Ensemble

Long before there was Captain Phillips there was Leon Klinghoffer. This American Jew sailing aboard the Achille Lauro was afflicted not by a virus or malfunctioning toilets or even running aground or other ailments that have affected cruise ship passengers in recent years. Rather, on Oct. 7, 1985, a team of Palestinian Liberation Front hijackers seized control of the Italian liner as it was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said in Egypt and held the crew and hundreds of passengers hostage. The PLF’s demand, at least as cited in the 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer, was to seek the release of 50 Palestinian political prisoners by using the hostages and cruise ship as bargaining chips in this act of desperate derring-do.

Contemporary composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman specialize in expressing 20th century historic events and personages through the operatic idiom. Their 1987 Nixon in China, about Tricky Dick’s trip to the People’s Republic, was presented around 2010 at Long Beach Opera, with soprano Suzan Hanson -- who portrays Marilyn Klinghoffer in Death -- as Pat Nixon. Adams and Goodman collaborated on 2005’s Doctor Atomic, about nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, although Goodman left the work (Peter Sellars has its librettist credit).

Alex Richardson (Molqi), Roberto Perlas Gomez (Rambo), Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer)

Alex Richardson (Molqi), Roberto Perlas Gomez (Rambo), Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer)

Of these three operas dealing with relatively recent history, the rarely staged Death is the most controversial. Like the one-woman show My Name is Rachel Corrie, Death has been dogged by criticism and cancellations, and Long Beach Opera’s production is the SoCal premiere of this work which debuted more than 20 years ago in Brussels (directed by Sellars) and then was performed at Lyon, Vienna and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Why has Death been so bedeviled with dispute and why has it taken so long to reach Long Beach for its West Coast opening?

The answer can arguably be found in the opening, which begins after what seems like an operatic version of a close up, wherein a wheelchair is splashed with water, a clear reference to the title character and his fate. Then, in the first full scene about 18 performers portray Palestinian refugees who enact and sing a lamentation with a haunting melody and lyrics: “My father’s house was razed in 1948… Israel laid all to waste.” This is extremely powerful as it is, for U.S. theatergoers, a rare live stage expression of what Palestinians call “al-nakba”, which is Arabic for “catastrophe” and refers to the alleged expulsion of about 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland during the conflict that led to the establishment of what is now called the State of Israel (in, we should recall, land that had until 1948 been called “Palestine”).

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Lee Gregory (The Captain)

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Lee Gregory (The Captain)

To get a sense as to how daring this sympathetic stage depiction is one should consider that in 2009 Israel’s education ministry actually banned the word “nakba” from textbooks for Arab elementary school students. (One man’s “ethnic cleansing” is another’s “War of Independence”!) What makes Death’s presentation of Palestinian grief onstage so powerful and provocative is that Americans so rarely have an opportunity to experience the Palestinian point of view in a live artistic venue, whereas theatrical renditions of Jewish suffering are comparatively commonplace. Consider the heartbreaking grand finale of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, wherein the expelled, displaced, dispossessed Jew Tevye pulls a cart filled with household possessions, having been given very short notice by Cossacks (you know -- the type of pigs who recently bullwhipped Pussy Riot) to “hit the road, Jake!”, as the patriarch leads his family from the pogrom-wracked Ukraine.

But Fiddler debuted on the Great White Way way back in 1964 and there have been many other staged renditions of Jewish suffering. This makes Death’s second scene -- with what appears to be the same performers who’d just played Arabs lamenting the Jewish counterpart of “al-nakba”, the much worse Shoah-- far less potent and poignant. This is simply because we’ve seen scenes of Jewish misery so many times before, whereas the suffering of Palestinians scarcely makes it to U.S. stages. I mean, when was the last time you heard anyone complain about “the Palestinian influence in Hollywood” or Broadway?

This attempt to present a Palestinian perspective and back story opened Adams up to charges of anti-Semitism and efforts to censor and suppress Death. (Librettist Goodman was brought up as a Reform Jew in Minnesota and is now an ordained Anglican priest and the chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge.) But this reviewer thinks that if one objectively assesses the opera, Adams and Goodman were striving to be fair and evenhanded, and to try and explain the fertile soil from whence terrorism grows. And with the interchangeability of the same performers in mass scenes who seem to play both Jews and Palestinians the creators also seem to be suggesting that both are aggrieved parties who have endured much misery. One can surmise that contrary to conventional wisdom, suffering does not ennoble; rather, it brings out the worst in people, with relentless retaliation, an endless tit-for-tat that does nothing to actually resolve legitimate historic grievances.

Having said that, one of the terrorists called “Rambo” (chillingly played by baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez, who previously portrayed Chou En-Lai in LBO’s Nixon in China) appears to be a madman who sadistically enjoys inflicting suffering on the helpless hostages. The Wall Street Journal’s Raymond Sokolov wrote about “the repulsive anti-Semitism that drools from [Rambo’s] mouth…” (For what it’s worth, this critic asked cast members if any of the singers were Arabs and was told that none were, while two of the characters -- including a Palestinian hijacker -- were portrayed by Jewish performers.

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The portrayal of Leon Klinghoffer (opera veteran Robin Buck, a baritone) is troublesome. The American Jew, who is celebrating his wedding anniversary with wife Marilyn (whose cancer is also reportedly believed to be in remission) with this cruise, is only fleetingly glimpsed being wheeled about in his wheelchair throughout the entire first act. After the PLF terrorists seize control of the Achille Lauro amidst much agitated music with swirling strings, the opera’s title character becomes more of the center of attention.

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Suzan Hanson, who plays Marilyn, told this reviewer that while the opera is factually based on actual events, the work’s creators took poetic license with characters’ dialogue. Bearing that in mind, this writer here is referring not to the real life Leon but to the opera’s presentation of Klinghoffer, who it can be said is revered as a sort of folk hero to Jews and some Americans because despite being an invalid, he verbally stood up to the hijackers. (Although Klinghoffer was likely singled out because he was Jewish and American, this point is not clearly made in the lyrics, although it is noted that Yanks and Brits -- thanks to, among other things, a terrorist reminds us, the Balfour Declaration! -- are separated from their shipmates.)

Having said that, the opera’s Klinghoffer arguably comes off as somewhat unsympathetic, because he seems to deny that his Palestinian captors are acting due to any actual grievances. In the lyrics Klinghoffer’s character is given to sing he appears to belittle and to be indifferent to the Arabs’ suffering -- perhaps even a bit arrogant. This seems especially insensitive, especially considering that according to the plot, at least one of the kidnappers lost close relatives during the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer)

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer)

Now, whether or not the real Leon actually did make these caustic remarks, some can perceive them as bold defiance to his tormentors. On the other hand, taunting hostage-takers armed with automatic weapons is not a highly effective survival strategy. It could explain why he suffered the fate that he did -- not that callousness merits the punishment meted out to him, and apparently Klinghoffer alone. As to how he is dealt with your plot spoiler averse critic won’t reveal details.

Terrorism is a double-edged sword and its contemporary use is largely derived from what the anarchists called “the propaganda of the deed.” The misfortune of the wretched of the Earth is often neglected by corporate media and status quo, and to get attention for their plight les miserables often have to resort to spectacular measures that often take the form of horrifying violence, which mainstream media can’t simply ignore (as it does their silent suffering). But this can often backfire upon the perpetrators. In our celebrity-obsessed culture it’s often said “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” the rationale being that it doesn’t matter what is being said about one as long as you are being talked about. But this reporter doesn’t believe that, and the indiscriminate slaughter of unarmed civilians, who are often innocent of any direct connection to historical offenses, is widely regarded as a loathsome, despicable tactic that usually results in terrible PR for terrorists -- and their causes. Like the 1972 slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics by Black September, the Klinghoffer incident, wherein a man confined to a wheelchair was the victim, is “Exhibit A” of this unintended consequence. Call it “bad publicity blowback.”

Throughout this two-acter there are about four to six choral interludes, telling the Biblical story of Hagar, set in the desert, etc. This may be a cinematic device grafted onto the opera art form which some spectators may find illuminate the overall theme. Others, including your perhaps dimwitted wordsmith, found these diversions from the linear narrative to distract from the compelling Bruce Willis-like storyline that unnecessarily added an hour or so to a performance that could have lived without these distractions. (Maybe Adams got paid by the note and Goodman by the word?)

Having said that, this is a mere quibble as overall, Death is a towering work of art ably directed by James Robinson and conducted by LBO’s Artistic & General Director Andreas Mitisek. The set design by Allen Moyer cleverly evokes a cruise ship and Greg Enetaz’s video design on a screen that is sometimes not far above the performers’ noggins -- not unlike thought balloons in comic books -- is likewise evocative of an ocean voyage and more.

Standouts in the cast of 20-plus include the aforementioned Hanson as Marilyn; Jason Switzer as the hijacker Mamoud; and Danielle Marcelle Bond in a triple role as three passengers, including a “British Dancing Girl” who provides some levity as she goes with the flow during the ship’s seizure. Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell excels and exults in a gender bender role as the male terrorist Omar. The above cited Gomez has a double role; in addition to depicting the apparently mad Rambo who toys with and taunts the wheelchair-bound, helpless Klinghoffer, Gomez also depicts First Officer Bruno, who sings a line that may sum up all of this shipboard mishegas: “Hell’s bells all right.”

Should opera tackle current affairs and historical events? Why not? Isn’t Rossini’s William Tell, with its stirring music, suggested by fledgling Switzerland’s 14th century struggle free itself of the tyranny of the Habsburg dynasty? Puccini’s Tosca, with its theme of political prisoners, also has historical undertones, and so on. Bravo to the composer and librettist for taking this topic on and to LBO for presenting it; in terms of world events, it’s hard to imagine anything more tragic today than the ongoing Arab-Israeli quarrel.With this opera, one can argue that Adams, the Minimalist music man musing on human misery, has attained maximum effect.

The Death of Klinghoffer was presented by Long Beach Opera at the Terrace Theater. On May 4 at 7:00 p.m. and May 10 at 2:00 p.m. LBO is presenting Igor Stravinsky’s An American’s Soldier’s Tale and Wynton Marsalis’ A Fiddler’s Tale at Center Theater and in June David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field at the Terrace Theater.Both the Terrace and Center Theaters are part of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center at 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802.For more info: (562) 432-5934; http://www.longbeachopera.org/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See:http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.