Near a barren tree in the middle of a bleak, gray landscape, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians mills about onstage. Wrapped in dark garments, their weary aspects suggesting immigrants at Ellis Island, they contrast starkly with the largely empty crimson-and-gold Metropolitan Opera House, its tiers of box seats wedding caked above each other. In the orchestra level’s center section, scarf-clad director Tom Morris leans over a seat, observing the proceedings intently, while chorus master Donald Palumbo, his punctilious aspect suggesting a suit salesman at a high-end clothing store, paces the aisles.
Baton in hand, conductor David Robertson, clad in a black polo shirt, stands in the pit before his orchestra. In the row behind the soundboard in the center section of the audience sits composer John Adams, a man with a trim white beard and the soft-spoken yet confident demeanor of a tenured academic. The score to his opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” checkered with red post-its, rests on his lap.
Onstage the chorus makes way for a prop man who enters carrying a handgun and an automatic weapon. In the audience, a member of the production team leans over to Adams and whispers, “John, before we do anything, we’re going to have some gunshots.” Adams smiles slightly. “Aimed at you or me?” he asks.
The question Adams poses is meant to be witty, yet there’s a grim sort of truth behind it. For ever since “Klinghoffer” opened in Brussels and Brooklyn in 1991 to admittedly mixed reviews, Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, have found themselves the targets of vitriolic attacks, which claim that, in contextualizing and humanizing the Palestinian hijackers who murdered the wheelchair bound, Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, they created a profoundly misguided and anti-Semitic work. In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, the Massachusetts-born Adams — whose other operas include “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” both of which have been performed in recent years at the Met, and who won a Pulitzer Prize for music he composed memorializing the victims of 9/11 — asserted that he has been put on a blacklist by the United States Department of Homeland Security. Goodman, who was born Jewish in Minnesota but converted to Christianity while writing this opera and now serves as a reverend in England, hasn’t written a libretto for a major opera since “Klinghoffer.” She drives a car with a bumper sticker asking WTFWJD (“What the F–k Would Jesus Do?), and told me over the phone that her commissions just about disappeared after “Klinghoffer.”
“Operas don’t just get written; they have to be produced,” Goodman said. “And producing an opera requires an opera house and singers and quite a lot of money. There was no chance of anything with me as a librettist being commissioned after ‘Klinghoffer.’ When I was writing it, I had this sense that I had never written anything this good and I had this juvenile sort of thought that now, everyone would want me to write more libretti. What I should have thought was that, if this is the last thing I write, it will be all right. I can hang up my typewriter with this being the last thing I’ve done.”