Last month, the librettist and Anglican priest Alice Goodman told the New York Times of her text to the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Anything I might say about the controversy”—she was accused of anti-Semitism in her depictions of Jewish characters—“would pour gasoline on the embers.” She went on, “I doubt I’ll ever write anything better.”
In a phone call with me recently, however, she did address the issues at stake in the work and its reception in some detail. Goodman’s voice is sweet, even understated. In addition to having a natural way with words, she also has a fluency with ideas, weaving thoughts on poetry with small meditations on human nature. In discussing her new book of collected libretti, History Is Our Mother, she drifted seamlessly from her work with John Adams to reflecting on John Milton, and connecting them with her childhood memories of Passover Seders. I didn’t dare interrupt.
Alice Goodman: Lately I’ve been thinking about music in Paradise Lost. It’s everywhere, of course, but if you look in Book II, it says of the fallen angels:
The fallen angels’ “partial song” is a play on words. Milton implies that their music was both in multiple voices (that is, in harmony) and biased. But it is “with ravishment” that they take the thronging audience of angels and eternal spirits. It’s here we see that before the fall of man, fallen angels can still sing beautifully.
This is an idea that I like to think doesn’t just go on in my operas, but in all opera. Opera wouldn’t be art if we insisted that ugly people only sing ugly music. In the end of Paradise Lost, we see that after the fall, human beings can still contribute to the music of the spheres, the harmony of the world. They can still be beautiful.
VAN: Are your operas about ugly people?
I think ugly people are everywhere. All people are imperfect. I especially think that people who are ready and willing to kill others have got a certain ugliness about them, yes. I should like to add that this is not an unusual point of view.
You’ve recently republished your librettos in your new book History Is Our Mother. Do you think ugliness is somehow a theme in the book?
I think if you look at the character list in “Nixon in China,” you’ve only got one principal character who isn’t directly responsible for the death of anyone. That’s setting the bar pretty low.
But of course, there are lots of things going on in “Klinghoffer” [as well]. That’s why I think it’s good to be able to read the libretto in its entirety, complete with the technical elements of the poetry.
Do you mean to say that the original libretto and the libretto of the opera are different?
There are portions of the libretto which were cut for the sake of time, which haven’t really been properly reincorporated. If you buy the piano score, which I have here on my shelf, what you get is the music. But with the libretto, however, you get the text “as set” rather than the text “as written,” with none of the omitted scenes or lines. And if you buy the CD from Nonesuch, you get a booklet with the libretto in it, a bit like a side order of fries with your Big Mac. There you can see the portions of the libretto that were not set but cordoned off in boxes with black lines.
Are there any particularly important portions for you?
Yes, in the Prologue to the opera.
The Prologue that drew the most criticism for being anti-Semitic?
The scene in the living room in New Jersey with the Rumor family was completely cut. It’s a point where all the different narratives and ideas of the opera converge—the Klinghoffers, Israel, the Reagan years—as a fictional Jewish family [the Rumors] discusses the Klinghoffers’ upcoming family vacation. It’s an extended scene that falls directly between the Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. Without the scene, the two choruses seem too stark and can be seen and heard incorrectly.
[An excerpt of the scene is below, selected by us.—Ed.]
But what is cut in an opera has so much to do with things beyond the writing process. In this case, it was to do with the opera’s length and the issue of overtime pay for the orchestra. Of course, there’s no way you can object to that. You want your musicians to be well paid.
How do you look back on it retrospect?
In the end, I really was sorry John [Adams] caved in and cut the Rumor [family] scene. If it had not been for this, I think the opening choruses would have been heard and seen in a different light.
Did you ever come under fire for any of your characterizations in “Nixon in China”?
Well, there are always small groups of people who feel one is unfair to their friends. I forget which group it was, but there were those who felt that Madam Mao was unfairly depicted. And there were those who felt that the role of Kissinger should have been larger.
What were those processes like with “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer”?
With “Nixon,” it was strict, but we were depicting characters whose lives were largely in the public domain of the media. With “Klinghoffer,” there was always the interesting question of Mr. Klinghoffer himself. On one hand he wasn’t in any way as famous as Richard Nixon, but by the time the opera had been premiered, there had been two major docudramas on his life: “The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro” (1989) and “Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair” (1990). Nevertheless, every single word of “Klinghoffer” was legally examined.
Take the captain, for instance, who sings that he took “two Halcions.” That was something that the legal team picked up on, as the name Halcion was the name of a pharmaceutical company and not technically the name of the drug which the captain took, triazolam. It was also interesting because the drug has adverse side effects, such as clouding of judgment and memory. It wasn’t long before “Klinghoffer” was premiered that the drug was withdrawn from the market in the UK altogether. But in the end, the line about “two Halcions” was kept because in the captain’s memoir he said exactly that: he had taken “two Halcion pills” that did not work. It’s not something I could have or would have made up.
You put yourself through fairly rigorous scrutiny with your sources.
Yes, because it was important to all of us, [Alice Goodman, Peter Sellars and John Adams], that in “Nixon” as well as “Klinghoffer,” we made everyone as eloquent as possible in their own characters and arguments.
“Klinghoffer” isn’t just about individuals like the title character—it also tackles Zionism and the Palestinian refugee crisis more broadly.
There’s actually very little about Zionism in “Klinghoffer.” There are historical backdrops, yes, but the opera is about human beings. The opera insists that your enemies, even your sworn enemies who have a mind to kill you, are still human beings. I would never write an opera about Donald Trump, but, God help us, he is not of another species, and we cannot blame or address him on that basis. In looking back, I didn’t want Leon Klinghoffer to be a martyr, I wanted him to be a mensch. I didn’t want the terrorists to be heroes, but prey to the dangers of romanticism and nationalism.
Has that idea always been important to you?
Growing up in Judaism, this was beautifully expressed in the Passover Seder. At the Seder, the story is told of the Four Sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who is not old enough to speak. But as the story is told of the wicked son “who dissociates himself” from the family, he is still nonetheless of the same father, of the same mother. He is still a son.
Again, I think about Milton’s angels. You’ve got to find humanity in your enemies. Fallen angels may be fallen and singing of their own great feats, and not of God, but they are still immortal spirits.
I quite like the characters in “Klinghoffer,” especially the Klinghoffer family. I simply cannot see what kind of objection anyone would have to them. But this is something writers live with: censorship, self-censorship, and writing about people who are or who have been alive.
Have you ever tried to reconcile with the Klinghoffer family?
I’ve never had anything to do with the Klinghoffer family. ¶