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When ‘Mrs. Klinghoffer’ Boarded the Achille Lauro: Hoelterhoff

Sheila Nadler as Mrs. Klinghoffer in 1991. The opera has been revived amid controversy. Source: San Francisco Opera via Bloomberg.
Sheila Nadler as Mrs. Klinghoffer in 1991. The opera has been revived amid controversy. Source: San Francisco Opera via Bloomberg.

I was about to call Al Jazeera when Sheila Nadler came by, just in time to talk about “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the opera that’s in the news these days.

I met Nadler after she sang Mrs. Klinghoffer in the world premiere in Brussels in March 1991. We’ve been friends ever since, even though my enthusiasm for the piece was muted:

“Anyone who thought the Achille Lauro hijacking was just another example of small-minded viciousness festering among Muslim thugs is certainly in for a surprise,” I wrote in a review for the Wall Street Journal.

As in real life, John Adams’s opera concludes with members of the Palestinian Liberation Front shooting an elderly Jewish vacationer, Leon Klinghoffer, and chucking him overboard with his wheelchair.

The head of the Anti-Defamation League hasn’t seen the opera, but thinks it’s inflammatory and wants to ensure others won’t see it, either.

Befuddled foot soldiers keep phoning media people like me saying that “the play” must be stopped.

The Met doesn’t stage plays (though if the current labor negotiations don’t end well, I guess that might change).

The anti-Klinghoffer campaign wore out Met general manager Peter Gelb, who canceled the HD transmission into movie theaters around the world, noting the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, while also saying the opera isn’t anti-Semitic. He somehow managed this exercise in twisting paradox and conflict management without getting his eyeballs stuck way back. He has not canceled the production itself, which opens Oct. 20.

Provoking Still

“Why is ‘Klinghoffer’ provoking people 23 years after the premiere?” I asked Sheila, as she sat down with a glass of wine and a beagle.

“In part it might be the title: ‘Death’ suggests he had a stroke. He was murdered.”

I said I’d come around to thinking that “Death” imparted a strange dignity to his killing. Did she, the daughter of a Jewish garment king, worry about the topic when director Peter Sellars called her with the part?

“No! Are you kidding? I was glad I got the contract! I adored Sellars and Gerard Mortier, who ran the theater. And Mark Morris was young and gorgeous!

‘‘Then the score came. I’d imagined all this action, singing with the captain and so on. Nope. I had two arias in the last third of the opera.’’

It didn’t strike anyone odd that Mrs. K was mute for much of the show, along with Leon?

Palace Meals

‘‘Peter said we should think about the events and project intensity, so I rolled Leon around in his wheelchair and thought about those great Belgian meals, especially in the Grand Place. Something called stoemp, and you could have chicken mashed up in the potatoes.’’

The world premiere featured an obnoxious prelude set in a New Jersey living room of a Jewish family surrounded by tchotchkes picked up in their travels. I asked if we were meant to hate them for having a home while the Palestinians roamed?

‘‘Beats me. That got dropped as the production circulated, so the opera starts with chorus of Palestinians mourning their homeland and then the Jewish refugees arriving with no money. They wore identical robes.

‘‘Peter had a lot of history books for us to look at so that we would understand that the Palestinians had been mistreated. That Palestinians singing about their land is the best music in the opera, though my lament at the end, the lament of the survivor is, I think, heartbreaking.’’

But is the piece actually anti-Semitic?

Confronting Terrorists

‘‘No. I think it’s ‘‘anti-Sitzfleisch. I hate to say this, but it’s undramatic, ritualistic and hard to sit through, even though Peter and Mark tried to animate it with doubles. I had a double who was a lot thinner and I made sure she never got near me. Ultimately, terrorists killing an old Jew don’t exactly provoke sympathy for their cause, you know? And Leon is pretty feisty in his confrontation with the terrorists.’’

Think the Palestinian Authority will lodge a protest of its own?

‘‘I can’t wait. That abstract set was part of the problem. No sense of the sea. I guess it was meant to invoke a timeless setting, but actually this issue only dates back to 1948.

‘‘When we did the opera in San Francisco, the exasperated general manager, Lotfi Mansouri, insisted that Peter add some action. He thought it was boring.’’

Still, I said, here we are talking about an opera. That’s so rare and an achievement of its own. Do you remember if there were any threats at the Brussels premiere?

Iraq Fear

‘‘I bumped into Anja Silja, who was doing ‘Jenufa’ at the theater, and she said in that vonderful Tcherman accent of hers that we would never open. ‘Neffer! Nein!’ And that gave me pause. She thought we’d be bombed.

‘‘Remember, the first Iraqi war was just barely over, so there was this tension and low-level fear. We rehearsed in a secret place. At the same time, we were all becoming friends. There was a great feeling of camaraderie.’’

The Klinghoffer daughters have attacked the opera as an insult to their father.

‘‘I don’t think I ever told you this, but I met their mother, the real Mrs. Klinghoffer, on Amsterdam Avenue before I sang in the opera. A friend introduced us. I only remembered that after the premiere. She had a white streak in her hair. After what happened on the ship, she went completely white, I am told.’’

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for art at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own.)

(An earlier version of the review corrected the name of the league in the fifth paragraph.)

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