John Adams, America’s most prominent composer since Aaron Copland, was called upon to write beautiful music for the New York Philharmonic to memorialize victims of 9/11. Yet his second opera, 1991’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” remains one of classical music’s most controversial and criticized works.
Choruses from the opera, which is based on the 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish passenger aboard a cruise ship that was hijacked by Palestinian militants, are on the Berkeley Symphony’s program conducted by Joana Carneiro on Thursday.
“These choruses are really the lyrical heart of the piece, and I use them in several ways,” the Berkeley-based Pulitzer Prize winner said from his studio. “One is to set the vivid, natural world of ocean and desert, mountains, day and night. The other is to be the voice of populations, of nations, right at the beginning.”
The voices of Jewish and Palestinian populations are central to the debate over “Klinghoffer,” which has been called insensitive and anti-Semitic. Productions have been canceled through the years, including the Boston Symphony’s plan to present the choruses after 9/11.
But Adams says his work deals with mythic narratives, which are common to all countries.
“We have Washington and Lincoln, the Gettysburg address, etc. Over time, they become caught in the web of mythology. I think these narratives – the founding of Israel, and the Palestinians and their narrative of being exiled – are mythic narratives. As a composer, I took each of them as genuinely and honestly as I could.”
When New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged “Klinghoffer” last fall, plans to simulcast it worldwide were halted for fear that it could used as a vehicle for anti-Semitism, and protesters picketed.
Yet Adams isn’t overly concerned about detractors.
He says, “What’s amazing is that most of them had been rallied, told that something was horrible, pro-terrorist, but they didn’t really know the opera. You had very cool heads like Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg who bought a ticket, went inside and listened, came out, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.”
After attending a performance of the opera in Torino, Italy, the captain of the Achille Lauro, the ship in the opera, maintained that Adams’ work told the truth. On one occasion, he ran onstage and said so.
Memorable reactions have come from both sides. Adams described Palestinian American literary theorist Edward Said’s comments as “eloquent,” and says Jewish people, including Israelis, have told him they were moved by the chorus.
“I believe that if somebody hears the music, goes to the opera, they couldn’t possibly feel it’s all these things it’s been labeled,” Adams says. “I think exposure is the key, listening to it and taking it seriously as a work of art.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way and Dana Street, UC Berkeley, Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. April 30
Tickets: $15 to $74
Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.berkeleysymphony.org