The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams

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The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams

The Death of Klinghoffer is not an opera typically well known to the general public. Produced in 1991, it was penned by John Adams who was born on 15th February 1947 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Adams studied music at Harvard University from 1966 to 1971 and then moved to the West Coast. He soon became a professor at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Here he conducted the New Music Ensemble.

The Death of Klinghoffer was based on a true event that occurred fairly recently in history. The director, Peter Sellars stated that “it is not the terrorist hijacking that forms the focus of the action but the choruses that give voice to the dead and the souls of nature and the world”.

The libretto was produced by Alice Goodman. The opera, a prologue and two acts, premiered on the 19th March 1991 in Brussels at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie. It is set on the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985.


Captain (Bass)

First Officer (Bass-Baritone)

Swiss Grandmother (Mezzo-Soprano)

Molqi (Tenor)

Mamoud (Baritone)

Austrian woman (Mezzo-Soprano)

Leon Klinghoffer (Baritone)

“Rambo” (Bass-Baritone)

British dancer (Mezzo-Soprano)

Omar (Mezzo-Soprano)

Marilyn Klinghoffer (Contralto)

Ocean Chorus, Night Chorus, Hagar and the Angel Chorus, Desert Chorus, Day Chorus; Palestinians and Jews (Chorus).


Prologue: The dead Palestinians and Jews proclaim a message.

Act I

Not too far away from the port of Alexandria, a group of Palestinians have hijacked the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro. Most of the passengers are elderly tourists and are grouped together into a saloon. Americans, Britons and Israelis are separated from each other. The Ocean Chorus speaks to them but is not heard. The music lover Mamoud is ordered to guard the captain and the Night Chorus makes contact between them.

Act II

The Book of Books tells of the story of the Angel and Hagar. On the knowledge that she is barren, Sarah advises her husband Abraham to make her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar pregnant. Hagar decides that she can no longer take the orders of Sarah and flees. The Angel of God, however, tells Hagar to go back and suffer Sarah’s harshness.

The terrorists bring the Americans, Britons and Israelis up on deck but unsure how to proceed. The Jewish Klinghoffer is chained to a wheelchair and taken downstairs where he is shot. The captain is ready to offer himself as a willing sacrifice when the day breaks. The ship sails into port and the terrorists have disappeared. Now, Mrs Klinghoffer learns of her husband’s death.


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