Politics at the Opera
In early 2012, ENO will be staging a new production of John Adams ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’, based on the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship ‘Achille Lauro’ in 1985. No opera in recent years has caused such debate. Personally, I think that all good music is by nature provocative, but working on the opera I couldn’t help but ask myself one question: ‘Why is it that people get so upset with this piece?’ Is it that opera is just too close for comfort?
I thought that if ‘Klinghoffer’ was a play or a movie, it would simply have been seen as a very individual and powerful way of seeing the Middle East conflict from the perspective of the people involved: the captain, the ship’s crew, the passengers and some of the hijackers. But it was clearly a different thing to have a hijacker speak or sing. The fact that Klinghoffer touched such a nerve is evidence of why opera is so relevant.
Having worked in both Israel and in Palestine, I quickly realised that everything – unavoidably – becomes a political statement, even just the simple fact of visiting the place or talking about the situation, or looking from the point of view of those living on the other side. And that’s exactly what ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ does: it exposes the listener by giving a voice – albeit accompanied by a very personal and deeply felt musical language – to all the different people who were accidentally thrown together in the strangest of circumstances aboard the ‘Achille Lauro’.
In creating an opera out of the story of Leon Klinghoffer’s death, John Adams faced up to a genre that is often seen as a safe haven from reality, partly because of its artificiality. The opera house itself still acts a refuge, where everything is a bit retro, the tunes opulent and the champagne cold. And if the audience doesn’t like the storyline, it’s quite easy to block out, because the text is usually hard to understand or in a different language. You can easily sit and just absorb the top notes or stare at the décor. But sometimes I am stupefied at what gets people upset in the opera house: Some naked bodies? Hearing some weird tunes? Hello?! This all seems quite tame compared to other art forms, let alone what the media exposes us to on a daily basis! There must be something else to it.
Sitting in a dark room for a few hours listening to music, to people’s voices, to a hyper reality of thoughts being expanded, to a dead body singing an aria or to the cumulative force of a chorus giving voice to a people’s sufferings. This has nothing to do with flicking through a few news headlines on your iPad or watching a 30 second news broadcast about a suicide attack or a settlement being built. Opera takes time. And no-one can watch the bombs drop from afar – it’s in your face.
Whoever looks for naturalism in opera is looking in the wrong place, because it is the most un-naturalistic of all genres. But that is exactly its strength – to give voice to the unspeakable, to go beyond the words and, with music, go towards a deeper perspective and more human way of understanding. For some people, that’s what is too much to take in Klinghoffer. Opera itself is different. Music deepens and ‘humanises’ characters – more so than the text alone does. And that’s what makes it uncomfortable, because in Klinghoffer, even the hijackers are being humanised. Everything is so much easier if hijackers don’t have a soul. It’s the spirit of the Bush years – you’re either with us or against us. ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ doesn’t take a position as such, but it gives a voice to everyone involved, from the hijackers to the grandmother. This in itself is already provocative. But even more so when it’s opera that is telling the story: the opera house is neither the place for absorbing at a comfortable distance nor for brain-dead consumption: it’s a place for the unspeakable, for involvement, engagement and exposure. Somehow the fact they are upsetting is in the very nature of great works – they get under your skin. And that’s exactly what John Adams’ ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ does.
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Baldur Brönnimann regularly conducts the major orchestras and new music ensembles around the world and from February 2012 he will be conducting ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ in ENO’s major new production. Known for his eagerness to push artistic boundaries and to embrace projects beyond the traditional concert, Brönnimann is Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, as well as Artistic Director of Norway’s BIT20 Ensemble. www.baldur.info
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