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Opera Notes Follow-Up
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October 28, 2014, 09:14 PM
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My comments here last week on opera, in particular those on the staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at the New York Met, brought in some interesting and flatteringly erudite reader comments.

The following is extracted from emails by a retired professor of musicology, and reproduced with his permission.

While Klinghoffer may present both sides of the struggle between Klinghoffer and his Palestinian kidnappers, it is the language and mode of presentation that is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian.  The text assigned to the Palestinians is poetic and expresses lofty sentiments; that assigned to Klinghoffer is demotic, disjunct, and uses vulgar expressions.  This is reflected in the music that accompanies these texts.  The music of the Palestinians is almost always lyrical and soaring; Klinghoffer’s music is angular, unmelodic, and generally unpleasing to the ear.

This is a common feature of the operas of the Adams / Sellars / Goodman collaboration.  [Peter Sellars produced the original version of Klinghoffer; the current Met production is by Tom Morris.  Alice Goodman wrote the libretto.—JD.]  The characters they support get the good tunes; those they are against do not fare well musically.

The overall effect of The Death of Klinghoffer is to create a dichotomy between the “nobility” of the Palestinians and the “crassness” of Klinghoffer.  This is very similar to what happens in [John Adams’ earlier work] Nixon in China.  Nixon and Kissinger are given mostly disjunct melodies and sing about the banality of air travel and electioneering.  It is Chou En-Lai who is the “hero” of the opera. He alone expresses lofty sentiments and is given lyrical melodies.

The lyricality of the music sung by these characters is afforded great prominence by its rarity within the repetitive context of the minimalist compositional style (which one wag has referred to as “the higher disco”).  In sum, the effects of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China are about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

I also agree with you that writing for the New York Times is not prima facie evidence of moral turpitude.  Nicholas Wade is a great (and brave) writer.  My copy of A Troublesome Inheritance sits proudly in my library next to my copy of We Are Doomed.

But if [Times reviewer] Anthony Tommasini truly sees a resemblance between Alice Goodman’s libretto for Klinghoffer and the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, I would have to question his sanity and/or aesthetic judgment.

Interestingly enough, I have a passing acquaintance with [librettist] Alice Goodman.  When I lived in Boston, I was a member of the Church of the Advent (like you, I am an ex-Episcopalian) and Alice Goodman was Deacon at the church while she was completing her studies for the priestess-hood at Harvard Divinity.

She married an Oxford don and is now Rector of an Anglican church in Oxford. Last year, Goodman managed to enrage her congregation by placing a bumper sticker on her car that read “What the F*** Would Jesus Do?”  A latter-day Elizabeth Bishop?  I think not.

On the other hand, there are modern operas that eschew the lock-step leftism of the Cathedral.  You might be interested in Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, one of the few 20th century works that utilizes a character in black face; and also Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust, an opera that is suffused with the philosophy of Nietzsche.

I leave you with the immortal words of Hugo von Hoffmansthal: “All powerful imaginations are conservative.”

Thank you, Sir.  That is instructive and enlightening.

On the main issue, I probably said more than I should have without (as I admitted) having seen the opera; but my position is unchanged.

I don’t mind opera librettists taking a politically or even morally tendentious point of view.  Opera is for grown-ups; we can weigh these things for ourselves.

José, after some lovely expressive arias, kills Carmen because she dumped him.  Does anyone come away from Carmen thinking that murder and flirting are morally equivalent?  Cavaradossi, the hero of Tosca, cheers at news of one of Napoleon’s victories.  I’ve seen at least a dozen productions of Tosca, yet am no better disposed towards Napoleon than I was forty years ago.

What I do mind is that across modern operas, the tendentiousness is all in one direction.

I await my George Wallace aria.  Or how about a George Wallace / Lester Maddox / Bull Connor trio?