THE story of the October 1985 hijacking of an Italian cruise ship and the assassination of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish American, had a kind of Sophoclean imponderability to it. This kind of event, the details of which came screaming at us via television and the newspapers, seemed to remain deeply embedded in our national collective unconscious along with the JFK assassination, the moon landing, Watergate, and so many other national myths. Of course people with good taste have all along been appalled by our choice of subject matter, and it is true that the Klinghoffer story, having already been the vehicle of two execrable television miniseries ... made the challenge of a serious treatment of the story all the more difficult. ... Composing an opera is not unlike constructing a fifty-story office building single-handedly. All those hundreds of thousands of small and large decisions - generally involving the irreducible questions of which note, and where - can only be made by the composer. You can't farm the work out to a subcontractor or create a Renaissance-style atelier full of assistants and scribes. ... With Klinghoffer, the beginning stages were particularly troublesome. The libretto arrived in unpredictable installments and not always in sequential order, which meant that I sometimes ended up discarding my first sketches. Often [Peter] Sellars and [Alice] Goodman would hash out key moments in the libretto via long-distance telephone calls, and I would not be clued in for a month or more, by which time I would be staring into the black maw of an implacable deadline. ... There seem to be two general types of composers. One works in wild spurts and loves the solitude of late-night hours, the other is the plodding nine-to-fiver whose daily life resembles that of an artisan more than that of an inspired vessel of the muse. I am definitely of the latter stripe. My best hours are in the morning, and I thrive on routine. ... The dramatic challenge of Klinghoffer was enormous. A verismo treatment in the style of Verdi or Strauss would have been in questionable taste. From the beginning my models were not from the operatic tradition at all but rather from those pieces of sacred music that tell a story, usually the Crucifixion, in a restrained, hieratic tone.... The overall structure of Klinghoffer ended up being articulated by seven large choruses that had the effect of meditations on the stage action.... They not only ser ve to put a frame around the "story" but also remind us that this event, this hijacking and assassination ... was in fact played out in the very womb of Western civilization. ... A month after the premiere, I conducted the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in five of the choruses, including the "Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians" and the "Chorus of the Exiled Jews,".... After each performance ... I would return to my hotel room, and on the television I would see the long lines of Kurds stumbling in wretched agony away from their homeland.... The story was the same, only the names and faces had changed.
Copyright 1991 Harvard Magazine. Reprinted with permission.