The cinematic version of the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer", written by noted American composer John Adams, and directed by Penny Woolcock is to be screened today at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.
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Adams composed the music for a libretto written by Alice Goodman, and although the opera initially followed the usual format, it was atypical, in that it addressed a real and contemporary subject, rather than myth, or history. It took for its subject the hijack of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, 1985, and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger on board, Leon Klinghoffer. The hijackers turned themselves in to the Egyptian government a few days later, when all 680 passengers were freed, including Marilyn Klinghoffer, the murdered man's wife. The opera had its premiere in 1991 in Brussels and was later performed in New York (with heavy security). In 1992 during the opera's showing in San Francisco, local Jews held a protest demonstration.
"The Death of Klinghoffer" received mixed responses. The writer Goodman and composer Adams were attacked for humanizing the murderers, for showing understanding of their motives, which receive ample exposure in the libretto, expounding Palestinian suffering. But in contrast, they were also accused of being part of a "Zionist conspiracy" for presenting the victim Klinghoffer as a hero and elevating him to symbolic status. At the time, Adams said he had shown the libretto to Jewish friends and the text had won their approval, but the stage version by Peter Sellars had made the opera more provocative.
A few months ago, a new version of the opera appeared. In consultation with Adams, Penny Woolcock, a British television director, adapted "The Death of Klinghoffer" for cinematic opera, and in the opinion of many critics, very much strengthened its political significance. The premiere screening of the film took place in May of this year, and since then it has been shown at film festivals and on Britain's Channel Four. The Los Angeles Times called the film "the first masterpiece of cinematic opera".
In the new version, both the message and the controversy are sharper because of the nature of the medium and because of the director's approach. Woolcock, 53, entered the profession at a relatively late age, according to her official biography, and she declares an interest in "life on the margins". In dismissing some of her critics, Woolcock recently told the London Independent, "It's convenient to have one point of view, because it stops you having to think."
The British director chose to present the story of the Achille Lauro in an extremely naturalistic style, made all the more possible in the medium of film. The cinema version captures clearly the cruise ship's atmosphere, with its well-to-do elderly passengers, the uniformed crew and the ridiculous dancers. However, occasionally the editors had to speed up the action to keep up with the original musical version.
The director did not confine herself solely to footage shot on the set - a huge cruise ship that was rented for the production - but added archival clips that are supposed to provide historical background. To cover the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe, there are scenes of Jews being led to the trains, while to balance this, there is footage of the expulsion of Palestinians from their villages in Israel in 1948, the oppression of the inhabitants of the territories and pictures of corpses from the camps at Sabra and Chatilla. Even without a precise comparison of the length of the background segments, the impression is that the Palestinian side receives preference with respect to the length and quality of the explanations. In the fictive historical reconstructions there are some embarrassing moments, such as a scene in which an Israeli soldier (a Holocaust survivor with a number tattooed on his arm and wearing suspenders) occupies an Arab village and has sexual intercourse (with a tortured expression, plagued by the past) with a woman who also looks like a survivor from Europe.
Sinking to the depths
Counter to the accusation that the film is sympathetic to the murderers, it must be noted that of the four Palestinian roles, two are depicted as very violent, full of hatred and trigger-happy. One of them is Rambo, the commander of the operation. Of the two others, Mahmoud, sung by an Egyptian baritone, is portrayed as a sensitive character who even vomits in horror and disgust when Rambo shoots Klinghoffer. Incidentally, all the singers perform their roles with fine voices and great musicality.
The artists who played the murderers had special training in the use of weapons before the filming, whereas the two singers who play the Klinghoffer couple (Yvonne Howard and Sanford Sylvan) spent considerable time at a rehabilitation institute in order to learn the characteristic movements of someone in, and someone pushing a wheelchair.
As for the murder itself, in the first operatic version, the murdered man sings a long aria, and afterwards his body is dragged across the stage. In the film version, Klinghoffer's body is thrown into the sea - as it was in reality - and the camera follows its prolonged sinking to the depths, with the bullet-stricken forehead well-illuminated and an indescribable expression of horror on the dead victim's face.
The opening of the film is taken entirely from the future, an effective scene, completely mute and without music. After everything is over, Marilyn Klinghoffer enters the police station in Cairo and confronts the four terrorists who are held under arrest there. The widow of the murdered man goes up to the murderer, Rambo, and spits in his face. Rambo reacts with a smile.
More film than opera
In the film, Adams' music does not lose any of its power, but it holds less attention, and is sometimes relegated to a soundtrack, albeit an excellent one. Indeed, Adams' work has definite characteristics of a soundtrack. It is music in which the meditative-elegiac aspect is rather simplistic, included the conscious use of minimalist techniques (the repetition of short patterns, in a style this composer developed in the past). The clearest example is the use of repeated short notes in the wind instruments, which convey the sound of gunshots. A great achievement of the film version is the naturalness of the singing. All the roles in the story are sung, but not for a moment is there a sense that singing instead of talking is an artificial phenomenon.
Opera is both music and a play but the greatest operas won their glory thanks to the music. The film of "The Death of Klinghoffer" is an opera of a new sort, where the plot is central, with all its terrible significance.
One critic has described the film of "The Death of Klinghoffer" as opera of the moment: not a work of art with aspirations to immortality, but rather a response to a reality that will presumably become outdated and forgotten. However, he also commented that perhaps this opera can be expected to have a longer future because it deals with universal issues such as dispute over land and historical rights.
After watching the film, I could not help but question whether it is not morally discordant to use a terrible event such as the murder of an elderly man in a wheelchair, for the sake of writing an opera. The director, Woolcock, precisely in her definitely political approach, seems to give an implicit answer to this question. Her adaptation of "The Death of Klinghoffer" is not an opera, but rather a film about terror with a very effective musical score.