Who says opera is an artificial art form
unable to deal with issues of today?
Surely not composer John Adams, whose operas continually tackle contemporary subjects. His first opera, "Nixon in China" (1987), dramatized that president’s historic 1972 visit, and "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky" (1995) was inspired by the large-magnitude Southern California earthquake of January 1994.
But Adams’ most significant and prescient opera is 1991’s "The Death of Klinghoffer," in which poet Alice Goodman’s libretto tackles a complex subject that, sadly, remains relevant today - terrorism.
Specifically, "The Death of Klinghoffer" is about the October 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea by four Palestinians. The title character is Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish American passenger murdered by the hijackers, who then tossed his body and wheelchair overboard.
Adams’ music, which often recalls the stately elegance of Bach’s choral works, lends itself to a stylized visualization of Goodman’s libretto, which brings us to Obie award-winning stage director Bob McGrath, whose work with the experimental Ridge Theater makes him the perfect choice for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s "staged concert version" of "Klinghoffer," with Robert Spano conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic on Dec. 3, 5 and 6 at the Howard Gilman Opera House.
"I’m sure one of the reasons they asked me to do it is because of our style, the way we use projections and lighting," McGrath told GO Brooklyn between rehearsals. "We often put our performers in tableau situations, so this opera lends itself to this kind of staging. We can put big visuals on it with our films and projections. A lot of the movement of our pieces is not the performer moving, it’s the media moving."
Ridge Theater has made a name for itself with its adventurous stagings of theater and opera, innovatively utilizing scrims and projections to create different planes of viewing for audiences. For "Klinghoffer," McGrath is again working with longtime collaborators Bill Morrison (film projections), Laurie Olinder (visual design), Kaye Voyce (costumes) and Matt Frey (lighting).
Notwithstanding the volatile politics that permeate this explosive piece, McGrath explains that his concept for this staging is very simple.
"I approach it as a drama," he says. "I try to focus on what happened on the ship over those couple of days. Our projectionist and filmmaker went out on a cruise ship and got a bunch of images and footage, and we’re really trying to place [the staging] within the ship it happened on. We’re not trying to make it too abstract - we’re keeping our focus on the reality."
Of course, since "Klinghoffer" has aroused such extreme passion, both pro and con - the latter typified by a New York Times critic’s screed that the opera was essentially worthless - McGrath is aware that even avoiding taking sides is, to some people, a way of taking sides.
"It’s such a hot issue," he says. "It’s so inflammatory and incendiary that people have a lot of really strong feelings about this. That’s just inherent in doing the thing. But this is an historical thing that happened, that’s how I’m approaching it."
McGrath actually found a kindred spirit from a most unlikely source: Penny Woolcock’s acclaimed film of the opera, recently released on DVD by Decca. Woolcock reworked Adams and Hoffman’s original concept to make it better suited to the film medium, and the results are stunning.
"I didn’t think I was going to like it - I don’t know why - but I really thought it was great," says McGrath. "I pretty much had my whole concept together when I saw it, but I’m sure it impacted my ideas a little, because I was really impressed, especially by the way [Woolcock] did things I can’t do - she created back stories for the terrorists and the passengers on the boat."
Woolcock’s film used a recording of Adams conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; for BAM’s version, McGrath is thrilled to be teaming with Spano and the Brooklyn Philharmonic for the first time.
"This is my ’debut’ with a full orchestra," he says with a laugh. "It’s been fantastic working with Bob Spano, because he’s energetic, he’s got great ideas, and he’s been supportive of my concept from the start."
But, in the end, it all hinges on how audiences respond to this musical and dramatic recreation of an incident that will live in infamy for the many people that it impacted on.
Its director wants to downplay everything except the essentials: what happened to 400 innocent passengers and crew at the hands of some violently misguided individuals.
"I don’t want to fan any flames," McGrath insists. "I just want to show the horribly sad events that happened over these two days in this gorgeous spot in the Mediterranean."
Ridge Theater’s production of "The Death of Klinghoffer" will be staged in the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) on Dec. 3, 5 and 6 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20, $40 and $55, and they can be purchased by calling BAM Ticket Services at (718) 636-4100, or by visiting the Web site at www.bam.org.