'Klinghoffer' opera, directed by Peter Sellars, gets mixed reaction


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Impresario Peter Sellars has sprung up afresh in Europe with a new opera that seems destined to prove no less controversial politically than artistically.

"The Death of Klinghoffer," which met a lukewarm response in its world premiere here Tuesday at the breathtakingly baroque Theatre de la Monnaie, is loosely based on the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean by four Palestinian terrorists. They killed Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly passenger in a wheelchair, and dumped his body and wheelchair into the sea.

But "The Death of Klinghoffer" is about more than the death of Klinghoffer. Its theme is the centuries-old conflict between Jews and Palestinians. "We did not intend to make of it a political piece," Mr. Sellars said, "but like all that we do, this is of course political."

Nor is "Klinghoffer" only an opera. Members of the Mark Morris ballet group are on stage for more than half of the nearly three-hour production and Mr. Sellars, the director of the Los Angeles Festival, uses giant television screens to show close-ups of some of the singers, particularly the fearsome terrorists and the beleaguered captain of the cruise ship.

"Klinghoffer," which will be staged in Lyon, France, in April and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September, comes from the same team that created "Nixon in China" in 1987. Alice Goodman, who wrote what Sellars describes as "one of the longest librettos in history" -- in fact, it is a very long poem -- was graduated from Harvard in the same class as Mr. Sellars in 1980. John Adams, the "minimalist composer" who put Ms. Goodman's words to music, is also a Harvard product, 10 years their senior. And choreographer Morris has had a long association with Mr. Sellars.

Not one for false modesty, Mr. Sellars, 33, regards "Klinghoffer" in the tradition of Greek tragedy and the Bach Passions. "It's just a big thing," he said.

Decked out for the premiere in his customary punk suit, Mr. Sellars left no doubt about what he thought of his work. "Pretty fabulous," he gushed during the intermission as he scurried from one admirer to another.

Most of the audience was not so sure. Nearly everyone found something to like -- and something to dislike. No two seemed to agree on the particulars.

The longer than usual intertwining of ballet and opera met with generally favorable reaction.

Less popular was the use of dancers, as well as singers -- sometimes simultaneously -- to portray some of the characters. When Klinghoffer's body was lowered to the sea, for example, it was the dancer Klinghoffer, not the singer -- a point of confusion for some in the audience.

"Klinghoffer" seems almost guaranteed by its very subject matter to trigger political controversy. Jews and Palestinians have been unable for centuries to settle their differences, and they are hardly likely to see eye to eye about this opera.

On opening night, the predominant conclusion was that "Klinghoffer" gives more time to the Palestinian cause than the Jewish.

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