Opera Out of Terrorism : Peter Sellars, John Adams and Alice Goodman, the creators of 'Nixon in China,' are at it again with 'The Death of Klinghoffer'

Linda Winer is the theater critic for Newsday

When Alice Goodman, poet and librettist in Cambridge, faxed the words of a Palestinian terrorist's aria to John Adams, composer in Berkeley, Goodman believed the lyrics were just "pretty nasty." But Adams showed them to his Jewish neighbors, who thought they were "anti-Semitic."

"John didn't think they would 'heal anything,' " Goodman said, but she refused to tone them down. "I said, 'Well, I'm Jewish and I can tell you that if you make all the Palestinians into Smurfs, the Brooklyn audience is going to rise up and lynch you.' John thought about it and decided I was right."

That time. Ask director Peter Sellars about creative tension surrounding "The Death of Klinghoffer"--the opera that has its American premiere Thursday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--and he lets loose one of his mad-happy cackles. "It was arduous. Someone could have been killed.

"Of course," he hastens to add about the team that already dared to sing about "Nixon in China," "it never actually got ugly. We respect each other as artists. But our differences are very, very real."

And that's just the way he likes it. At 33, Sellars seems relieved finally to have outrun the enfant terrible burden, but this hardly means his days are safe and cool. It was his idea, after all, to approach Adams, Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris about an opera on the 1985 hijacking of the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of wheelchair-bound passenger Leon Klinghoffer--an idea that might have seemed, for starters, to be unstageable, tasteless, unfathomable and opportunistic.

But the piece opened in Brussels in March--rehearsals and the Gulf War started at the same time; the rehearsal room, Sellars says, was "like living in a bomb zone"--and, from many reports, the results were meditative and complex, not exploitative and polemical. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" was frequently mentioned by reviewers, and Adams says he was aiming more for the feel of sacred music than grand opera. As Sellars puts it: "People began to realize this thing is genuinely not a public menace."

In fact, Opera News--published by the Metropolitan Opera, where Sellars' iconoclasm is about as welcome as soot--said the piece "marked the moment when American opera finally has achieved maturity."

Sellars says the "American press treated it very well, which was surprising and impressive to me. The British were predictably dense about it. The Germans were really split between 'Why is this happening in state-subsidized theaters?' and 'This is pretentious.' The French actually waxed poetic about it, though Liberation felt it wasn't 'left' enough."

Perhaps most striking of all are the contradictory interpretations of the opera's Middle East position. Its creators have been accused by critics and audiences of being pro-Arab and pro-Israel and--the one that really gets to Goodman--afraid to offend either side.

"With so many passionately held opinions in this collaboration," she says, "it's not about trying not to offend. It's about trying to be true to one's own belief without tearing out the throat of one's neighbor."

So here's the scoop on the politics. According to Sellars, we should expect pro-nobody. He says he was drawn to the incident because it was "so vastly overplayed for melodrama in the press and became swollen out of all proportion."

"The incident itself was not pro-anything," he says. "It was just a sad deadlock, a total tragedy where nobody comes off particularly well. It can't be seized by one side or the other.

"But it's pretty clear that the issues are on top of everyone's mind in the world. They won't go away. Obviously, America plays a large role in it, and, as Americans, we're hypersensitized to the situation. We felt that the chance to treat it in a non-sensationalist manner was very interesting--and could actually be useful."

Besides, after "Nixon in China," Sellars knew what he was getting into with his co-creators--not to mention his impressive band of loyal singers, familiar from "Nixon" and his Mozart cycle, and his longtime designer, George Tsypin.

"We enjoy coming from so many different political points of view and allowing them into the piece," the director says. "I hate when all the complexity gets ironed out in a work and it is this monolithic propaganda campaign against the audience and you're going, 'OK, OK, OK, I get it already!'

"In 'Death of Klinghoffer,' you don't get it. We don't want you to leave the theater thinking this or that. We just want you to leave the theater thinking. The audience is treated like adults. They're given something complicated and allowed to make up their own minds."

The opera, co-commissioned by a consortium of six international companies, has been in Lyon, France, and in Vienna but doesn't get to Los Angeles (as part of the Music Center Opera season) and San Francisco until the fall of 1992.

Sellars explains the unusual schedule: "We do it four times in a row, very intensely over many months. Then we put it away for a year and come back to it like a new piece. That's what we did with 'Nixon in China.' We work on it again in California, then go to London and make the TV tape. That way, it doesn't get stale, like a roadshow or an endless Broadway run. Every performance is an event."

Still, there is an extra buzz about the five performances at BAM (including one, perhaps insensitively, on Rosh Hashanah), not just because this is the first American stop but also because so many Jews and Arabs live close enough to circle the wagons.

"That's the thing about Brooklyn," Sellars says cheerfully. "You name it, they're there. And they'll be waiting. But that's great that people can go to the theater and find something relevant, something worth discussing. What a relief as opposed to most everything you see today, which has no content."

If the Klinghoffers see it in Brooklyn, it will be their first glimpse of the opera inspired by their incident of personal grief.

Although he and Sheila Nadler, who plays Leon Klinghoffer's wife, Marilyn, both have talked to their daughter Lisa, Sellars says that "by and large, we did it very independently from the family."

Adams, asked if he felt weird about invading the family's privacy, denies having qualms: "As far as I know, they collaborated on the television docudrama and appeared to enjoy doing it."

The "Klinghoffer" journey is similar to that of "Nixon," which was co-commissioned by four theaters. For Adams, who describes his musical style as using "minimalist elements but in a much less pure, more promiscuous way," the consortium is an invaluable way of popularizing an opera.

"Most contemporary operas get done once, sit around for 20 years and maybe someone comes around and says, 'Good piece. Let's resurrect it.' This is more like the way it was in the time of Strauss, Verdi, even Berg," he says.

For Sellars, who also heads the L.A. Festival and is editing his first movie, "The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez," the consortium divides the expenses in a time of tight money--an arrangement that also allows him to keep refining the opera in each new theater.

"Opera is such a giant logistical operation that, first time out, you're just trying to get the tuba to play at the correct moment," he says. "Playing beautifully is a later discussion."

Choreographer Morris will add another five minutes of dancing, and Sellars plans to restage three scenes for the Brooklyn run.

"Alice's text is rich but unbelievably thick," Sellars says, "and it's very hard to pierce to the heart of its meaning. John's music is very easy on the audience but really hard for the players. It sounds completely natural, but every little thing is exposed."

Amplification--a controversial item in Europe--will continue here because Adams insists on it: "The entire opera has a totally integrated sound design. Everything is enclosed in a large embryo."

Supertitles--which began as part of the decor and were discarded--are back, even though the opera is in English. But now they're high above the stage, where, according to Sellars, they don't interfere. "There isn't a lot of staging and it's very declamatory," he says, "so you'll have time to look at them, or not."

Oddly, it is Goodman, the writer, who opposes them: "Everyone says, 'Don't you want people to see your beautiful words?' But I'm totally against supertitles. They create a false impression of understanding. What opera gives you is so much more four-dimensional."

From all reports, audiences need whatever help they can get. Sellars uses just eight people for 14 roles, and everyone dresses pretty much the same, so a person can be a ship's officer one minute, a Palestinian hijacker the next, and characters are fleshed out by dancers.

"Confusing?" Sellars says with a laugh. "It is confusing. To be honest, it's an experiment, but I think it works. I wanted to give the actual experience, what it was like, not what it was like after the made-for-TV-movie writers finished with it.

"What might it have been like to have been there, where you just saw someone walking in a hallway with a machine gun for a second, and you don't know who they are and you don't know anything. So it's an abstraction, but it's actually much more realistic. And, you're right, it is massively confusing. But I think you get the cumulative effect in a completely different way than if we had proceeded all night with labels on everybody. They're just a bunch of passengers on a boat, and that's the way we treat them all night. None of them asked to be cast as tragic heroes."

Sellars, who hasn't worked in theater since the failure of his American National Theater in Washington six years ago, didn't originally ask to be cast in opera either. But don't send flowers.

"In opera, not only can the show not be closed, but it's sold out before it opens--which is exactly right," he says. "I love that. And I love that doing a piece of opera makes twice as much noise as doing a piece of theater today. Everybody swoops down, and a giant fuss is created.

"In theater, people are always saying," Sellars says in a pinched whine, " 'Welllll, this doesn't work, that doesn't work, and the second act is too sloooow.'

"Well, in opera," he says with a loud laugh, "of course the second act is slow. That's what opera is."

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