Making waves

An opera based on the infamous hijacking of a cruise liner 15 years ago dares to give voice to the t

Music orchestrates our emotions, and since 11 September people have relied on it to ritualise their responses to disaster and to sublimate their fury, grief and dread. Orchestras at successive memorial concerts in New York played Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, a wordlessly non-specific threnody applicable to all cases; the 74-year-old soprano Leontyne Price, conscious of a public duty, emerged from retirement to sing heartening spirituals and militant anthems. But one musical work that deals with an actual incident analogous - in a small way - to the aerial assaults on New York and Washington has remained unperformed, and is probably unperformable in an America in thrall to a compulsory piety and self-pitying rectitude. This is John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, which re-enacts the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists, whose first victim was the elderly, infirm Leon Klinghoffer, shot and then tossed overboard in his wheelchair. Unofficially suppressed at home, the opera has its first London performance at the Barbican this month, at the beginning of the BBC Symphony's weekend of music by Adams.

Klinghoffer has been the subject of outrage ever since its premiere in Brussels in 1991. Everyone loved Adams's previous opera, Nixon in China, because it transformed contemporary events into a parade as spectacular and amusingly bombastic as the triumphal scene in Aida: it had banquets, dancing girls, elephants (sculptural miniatures, visited by Pat Nixon on her way to the Ming tombs), and a 747 grandiosely taxiing to a halt onstage. But Klinghoffer - written with the same librettist, the poet Alice Goodman - was rawer, angrier and more worryingly open-ended, and got into trouble everywhere. Glyndebourne and the Los Angeles Music Center shared in the commission, but found shifty excuses for postponing performances indefinitely. Its first American performance, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, inconveniently coincided with the riots in nearby Crown Heights, where blacks and orthodox Jews killed each other on the streets; Adams and Goodman were excoriated for giving a voice to the aggrieved, exiled Palestinians, who bewail Israeli aggression in an opening chorus and later claim, with lethal contempt, that "America is one big Jew".

"After the initial fuss," Adams told me when we met in Vancouver in 2000, "Klinghoffer was just ignored. But it's coming round again." He based his conviction on a forthcoming Channel 4 film, directed by Penny Woodcock; as it happened, he was in London recording the soundtrack for this new version on 11 September last year. Events have caught up with the opera and made it sound alarmingly prescient. One of the terrorists, Mamoud, anticipates the sanctimonious ranting of Osama Bin Laden when he declares that he wants to die just as fervently as his infidel captives want to live. His brutish colleague, nicknamed Rambo, paraphrases the greeting in those anthrax-tainted letters by telling the ship's passengers: "You should think of death." A muttering chorus repeats "I am afraid for myself, for myself, for myself", which exactly catches the absurd, shaming panic of the New Yorkers who begged their doctors to prescribe Cipro and who bought canaries that would, they hoped, give them an early warning of poison gas attacks by keeling over. Klinghoffer also dares to find a sublime liberation of energy - like those photographs of the World Trade Center as an erupting volcano - in the violence and destruction it ponders. A tirade about the holy war by the terrorist Omar is accompanied by the percussive thunder of mallets and concludes in a brassy cataclysm. It should feel, Adams said in 1991, "like being in a truck loaded with TNT, driving straight into a Marine barracks". It takes courage to admit that a suicide bomber might be elated by the prospect of atomising himself, an act as gratuitously and excitingly operatic as Tosca's leap from the parapet of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Klinghoffer requires an unsettling and unflattering degree of self- confrontation, and after 11 September, the opera was sentenced to inaudibility all over again. The Boston Symphony had planned to include excerpts from it in a concert during the autumn. But the management, arguing that it wished to spare the feelings of a chorus member whose husband had been on board one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, substituted some blamelessly bucolic Americana by Aaron Copland.

Tragedy requires the equilibration of sympathy, because it deals - as Hegel said of Antigone - with the clash between two incompatible views of the world. America prefers the crude and self-congratulatory moral melodrama of George W Bush, who insists that "we are good" and demonises the country's foe as "the evil one" or "the bad guy". W H Auden once said that American foreign policy addressed a shy, ingratiating question to the rest of the world: "Do you love me as I love you?" Americans cannot imagine that this love, distributed as promiscuously as those care packages of peanut butter that were dropped on Afghanistan along with US missiles, will be unrequited. They seem unable to acknowledge that there are people in the world who might hate them, and have legitimate cause for doing so.

Klinghoffer refuses to dehumanise the hijackers, who present themselves as "men of ideals, not vandals". Shakespeare's grubby, bestial Caliban weeps when he hears the sounds and sweet airs that reverberate on Prospero's island; likewise Mamoud, in a nocturne accompanied by a bassoon, tunes in to Lebanese radio stations onshore and, while playing with his gun, sings along to tunes about sad lovers. Even more riskily, the opera takes a sharp look at the hostages who were spared, and wonders how much pity they deserve. Three female characters, all sung by the same mezzo-soprano, exemplify the survival instinct that is our base biological imperative: a Swiss grandmother thanks God she is not a Jew and looks forward to telling boastful stories about her "escapade"; an Austrian woman hides in her cabin with a cache of chocolate and refuses to die with her social inferiors (the aria brilliantly mocks the strung-out angularity of Sprechgesang, the musical manner invented by Schoenberg and his Viennese followers, whose disruption of melody Adams has always deplored); and a brainless British tourist flirts with the fanatics and bargains for ciggies.

A random casualty of the collision between east and west, Klinghoffer himself is a minor character who dies offstage, and has only two vocal solos (one of which is posthumous, sung over a stately, excruciatingly slow gymnopedie as his wheelchair tumbles into the sea). The work is as much oratorio as opera, so it will not suffer from the Barbican's unstaged concert performance: Adams modelled it on the Passions of J S Bach, which also reflect on sacrificial death rather than dramatising it. The main role, equivalent to Bach's narrating Evangelists, is that of the Achille Lauro's captain. Adams, forever eclectic in his collaging of sources, likens the Captain to Joseph Conrad's Marlow, the meditative seaman who ponders the cases of Kurtz or Lord Jim. He is well intentioned but ineffectual, unable to console Leon Klinghoffer's cancer-riddled widow, who would spit on him if her mouth were not dry.

As yet - she says in her final, broken-hearted lament - she has no tears to shed. Music can too easily make us cry and persuade us that our tears have washed away our misery. Why else was the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli imported to bleat through Ave Maria at Ground Zero last October? Adams avoids such sentimental palliations. Klinghoffer is bravely uncomfortable and comfortless: the only opera I know that has truths to tell about the insecure times we find ourselves living in.

Peter Conrad is the new NS classical music critic

The Death of Klinghoffer, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), on Friday 18 January at 7pm

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?