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The Baritone Who Sings Klinghoffer

The Monitor's editor, Richard Cattani, caught up with Sanford Sylvan at Tanglewood, where Sylvan talked about his singing career and American opera. He also discussed his lead role in 'The Death of Klinghoffer,' premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight.

By Richard J. CattaniEditor of the The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 1991


BARITONE Sanford Sylvan tonight sings the title role in the American premiere of John Adams's opera "The Death of Klinghoffer," directed by Peter Sellars. Mr. Sylvan talked about his singing career and the opera in a recent interview.Monitor: What is the cultural impact of the Adams-Sellars operas, the earlier "Nixon" and now "Klinghoffer"? Sylvan: In a way, more people in America know more about "Nixon in China" than about "La Boheme." Everyone knows there's this opera about Richard Nixon. That's one part of Peter Sellars's impress on the American operatic scene. The other is that his productions are about people relating to each other on stage and having that accepted by an audience.

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Isn't "Klinghoffer" about an unappealing historical event? Well, "Rigoletto" was an unappealing event. The unappealing nature of Richard Nixon when we started "Nixon in China" was overwhelming. Watergate is not far off enough to leave people with good feelings. With "Klinghoffer" we're not doing a TV docudrama. It's about God and people coming together or not. It's about theology and personal struggle and political struggle and religious struggle. It is not about a bunch of people who came on a boat with some guns and killed an old guy and then got off the boat.

What does the audience see? There's a prologue in which the Klinghoffers are not involved, in which I actually play another character. The opera proper begins with the actual hijacking. The first words of the opera are: "It was just after 1:15." The captain narrates the story. You see a dramatized version of the hijacking, narrated by the captain and by other passengers and by some of the Palestinians. The Klinghoffers themselves never speak until the second act.

Does Klinghoffer progress as a character? Absolutely. I start out as a terrified old man who cannot save his wife because he's bound to the chair, being hijacked and people pointing guns at us. Then, in the second act when I first speak I have an enormous aria of rage and impotence. Then I have a stylized farewell. By the point that the Klinghoffers speak in the opera, [they] are no longer just [themselves]. I [as Klinghoffer] am out of the chair and being played by a dancer and I am standing next to the chair. I am now the soul or voice of Klin ghoffer. The final aria belongs to my wife, Marilyn, speaking of her loss.

When did you know you were going to be a singer? There was a difference between thinking that I wanted to be a singer and then that I was going to be a singer. I grew up on Long Island. When I was 12, in 1966, my folks said I should visit the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. I was interested in theater and plays, so I went. I was wandering along and looking here and there. There was a slide exhibit, maybe two minutes of da." I thought: What's this! I watched it over, and over, and over again. I just fell in love with opera. I went to my chorus teacher at Jericho Junior High School. I said: "I want to be a singer." She said: "Well, then, you should go to Juilliard Prep." So I went to Juilliard Prep, when I was 13. I lied about my age at the audition because boys weren't supposed to go until they were 16. After that I decided to go to a conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, rather than to a normal college.