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Melville’s Measures
Artistic rescaling

Surviving the Wreck: Herman Melville, The Death of Klinghoffer, and the Power of Catastrophe

Mathieu Duplay


Alice Goodman’s libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams’s second opera, is replete with echoes of Melville; similarities with Moby-Dick abound in terms of plot and because both works appear shrouded in an atmosphere of moral uncertainty and metaphysical doubt. Does this mean that Goodman’s Klinghoffer libretto can be regarded as a creative reimagining of Melville’s great novel? The following paper answers this question in the negative. Goodman’s text does not rewrite Melville’s narrative; it is haunted by it as by some obscure, unimaginable trauma of which the Achille Lauro’s tragic fate, like the Pequod’s, is a terrifying manifestation.

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  • 1 So far, the American composer John Adams (b. 1947) has written five operas: Nixon in China (1987) a (...)
  • 2 Many critics have noted that Adams’s score insistently relies on sustained notes in the violins’ up (...)

1Melville is neither quoted, nor explicitly referred to, in Alice Goodman’s libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), John Adams’s second opera,1 but Melvillian echoes are unmistakable throughout. The action takes place on a ship unwittingly bound for disaster. The sea is a constant presence, both in the dialogue and in John Adams’s score, as powerfully atmospheric timbral combinations quickly become associated with the watery expanse surrounding the characters.2 As in Moby-Dick, the unfolding tragedy challenges conventional pieties when a state of emergency exposes the self-serving lies by which most characters live, giving rise to the unsettling suspicion that no underlying, universally acceptable truth can be salvaged.

  • 3 Moby-Dick (2010), music by Jake Heggie (b. 1961), libretto by Gene Scheer (b. 1958).
  • 4 Billy Budd (1951, revised 1964), music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), libretto by E. M. Forster ( (...)

2True, there are very significant differences between the two works. Goodman’s plot, which is based on real events, unfolds aboard a modern cruise liner, the ill-fated Achille Lauro, in the autumn of 1985; her Captain, a mild-mannered and rather ineffectual man given to slow, meditative asides, has little in common with Melville’s Ahab, with his wild flights of crazed rhetoric; and the people she carries come to grief not because of their own uncontrollable yearning for revenge, but on the contrary because they fall foul of the resentment that, largely unbeknownst to them, has been building up all around. Thus, The Death of Klinghoffer cannot be regarded as an adaptation of Moby-Dick, unlike Jake Heggie’s 2010 opera whose setting, characters, and plot closely recall the original.3 As Jeffrey Insko has shown, contemporary appropriations of Melville’s novel tend to foreground the character of Ahab, often to such an extent that “nearly everything else is simply filtered out” (22); Adams’s opera neatly reverses this pattern, as the Ahab figure is conspicuous by its absence in a libretto where Melvillian references abound but nothing directly reminds the audience of Melville’s protagonist. For similar reasons, The Death of Klinghoffer is hardly comparable to Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which steers much closer to the Melvillian text.4

  • 5 This section of the Prologue was poorly received in 1991 and was therefore withdrawn, with the comp (...)

3However, Adams’s opera does rely on tropes familiar to every reader of Moby-Dick. The title character, Leon Klinghoffer, is an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish tourist who books a cruise with his wife, a cancer survivor, to celebrate their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary: like Melville’s Ishmael, he goes to sea in an attempt to “driv[e] off the spleen and regulat[e] the circulation” (Melville 3). In Klinghoffer’s cozy suburban world, political violence is a distant reality, occasionally glimpsed when he watches the news on television from the comfort of his New Jersey home; “rumors and portents” abound (Melville 182)—ironically relayed, in the opera’s prologue, by Klinghoffer’s friends Harry and Alma Rumor (Goodman 77-86)5—but they usually go unheeded: in 1980s America, tragedy can be muted at the click of a button and it is always possible to fold the day’s paper in order to conceal distressing headlines (Goodman 86). This recalls Ishmael’s remark in the first chapter of Moby-Dick when he contrasts what he takes to be his own “shabby part of a whaling voyage” with the major events simultaneously unfolding on the world stage, as if they belonged to a different order of reality (Melville 7). However, denial is no longer an option once the Klinghoffers have left their protective bubble. “[D]ireful wrath” erupts amid the “serene, exasperating sunlight” (Melville 184) when the ship is hijacked off the Egyptian coast by a group of Palestinians demanding the release of political prisoners held in Israeli jails. Klinghoffer rises to the challenge with great dignity and courage, taking the hijackers to task for spurning the human values embodied by the “small things” he enjoys (Goodman 111)—the flight of a seagull, a “happy time” in the sun with his wife Marilyn (Goodman 112); but the consequences prove disastrous, and they decide to execute him in the hope of forcing the international community to give in to their demands. After the tragedy is over and the hijackers have been arrested, the stunned survivors gather to tell their tale; the stirring final aria belongs to Marilyn Klinghoffer, the deceased tourist’s widow who, desperately alone, surveys the “soft and dirge-like main” (Melville 573).

  • 6 In 1991, the opera’s American premiere (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) led to a vigorous controv (...)

4While the plot of the opera thus appears, up to a point, to resemble that of Melville’s fiction, the ultimate justification for this parallel resides in the atmosphere of moral uncertainty and metaphysical doubt that shrouds both works. Since its 1991 premiere, the opera has come under attack in the United States for its supposed lack of “evenhandedness” (Adams 2008, 165) and what many American commentators have taken to be Goodman’s (and, to a lesser extent, Adams’s) prejudice in favor of the hijackers at the expense of their Jewish victim.6 However, the text makes it clear that their anti-Semitism and grandiose sense of self-importance are unworthy of the cause they seek to defend. In an interview, Goodman states that the Palestinians “have justifiable grievances” (Adams 2008, 170), and the pathos of dispossession and exile is movingly conveyed when Mamoud, one of the hijackers, sings an aria about his lost homeland (Goodman 97-100); but the text consistently denies the attackers the moral high ground, for instance when another hostage, a British dancing girl, dismisses their leader as a dangerous bully (Goodman 116). In his autobiography, John Adams insists that the opera’s aim is neither to defend a partisan interpretation of the Middle Eastern crisis nor to “parse out judgement in equally measured doses” (Adams 2008, 165) as if to adjudicate between conflicting claims from a position of objectivity. Rather, it seeks to take a long, hard look at a situation so complex, and so deeply baffling, that no definitive conclusion can be reached, save that the good and the bad appear equally doomed. The Melvillian echoes have already been noted by Gorman Beauchamp, who attempts a comparison between Goodman’s Klinghoffer libretto and “Benito Cereno” on the grounds that both texts appear to question the morality of violence: The Death of Klinghoffer, so the argument goes, forces the American protagonist—and, more importantly, the American spectator—to consider to what extent they may have unwittingly become complicit in the crimes they deplore, much as Melville’s reader is made to wonder how to apportion the blame between the rebel slave Babo, his Spanish hostage, and Captain Delano, the American observer whose ostensible “innocence” is grounded in denial of his position as the representative of a slave-holding nation (Beauchamp 400). While this parallel is undoubtedly valid, Beauchamp appears guided by the assumption that the opera’s purpose is to identify the “real” culprits (and, in the end, to demonstrate that everyone involved is guilty to some extent)—an assumption that many American audience members probably share, and which goes some way to explain why the opera has aroused such hostility on the part of people to whom this smacks of anti-Semitic victim-blaming. However, Goodman’s libretto suggests otherwise. It seeks neither to exonerate the murderers nor to point an accusing finger at their all too human target, but to show that innocence, however genuine, does not stand a chance when everything that surrounds it starts going under like a sinking ship: evil, not guilt, is the real issue here. This sounds much closer to Billy Budd, or indeed to Moby-Dick

and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her (Melville 572).

  • 7 The most glaring omission occurs in Act 2, when the death scene segues into the Captain’s anguished (...)
  • 8 The epilogue is omitted in most productions, but Frieder Reininghaus’s German-language review of th (...)

5In the final scene, Mrs. Klinghoffer speaks for the audience when she expresses her revulsion in the face of so much bloodshed (Goodman 132); but no easy solution is proffered, no universal moral standard is held up, and the facts themselves are curiously hard to grasp in an opera that focuses on the murder of Leon Klinghoffer while failing to provide essential information about its historical context.7 Instead, the libretto takes a very Melvillian tack by repeatedly quoting from Scriptural sources, thus emphasizing the discrepancy between the hectic pace of the events it recreates and the vast temporal span of Biblical narratives: history blends into myth and myth stretches human memory to the limit, while “the great shroud of the sea roll[s] on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (Melville 572). If the tragedy of Klinghoffer means anything, its significance must be sought on a cosmic level, amid the seemingly “heartless voids and immensities of the universe” (Melville 195), but there is no clear guarantee of success. God’s name is never taken in vain in a libretto written while Goodman was experiencing a crisis of faith—originally Jewish, she “converted to Christianity between writing the choruses and arias for Klinghoffer” (Adams 2008, 170). However, in this theologically unsettled work, attempting to grasp the ungraspable vastness of the divine is a hopeless undertaking. In a spoken epilogue, the characters proclaim that nothing could save them except—possibly—a resigned acceptance of what passes understanding: “We have turned our faces toward the dark, and our hope” (Goodman 132). Even so, their prayer ends on a jarring note of uncertainty when they implore God to “raise [His] hands in [their] defense” (132).8 If God is on their side, what is there to fear? The question remains moot. “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright” (Melville 195).

  • 9 The generalized treatment of the title character has been taken as proof that Adams and Goodman hav (...)

6It would be rash to conclude from this that Goodman “appropriates” Melville, making his world so completely her own that she no longer bothers to acknowledge him. In fact, the opposite may well be true: his legacy permeates American culture to such an extent that Melvillian tropes are now common property, a sort of imaginative lingua franca to which Goodman turns when she needs to help her audience come to grips with a difficult and potentially divisive subject. As Richard Brodhead points out, Melville’s novel “has been absorbed into American folklore—so much so that people who have never seen a copy of Moby-Dick know who Captain Ahab is and use the chase of the great white whale as a metaphor for the obsessive pursuit of irrational goals” (18-19). A creative rewriting of the book in the form of an opera about the Middle Eastern crisis would involve, on several levels, a more or less deliberate misreading of the Melvillian text, a Bloomian act of misprision whereby the great precursor would be made to “[return] in our colors, and [speak] in our voices, at least in part, at least in moments, moments that testify to our persistence, and not to [his] own” (Bloom 141). This would run counter to the spirit of Goodman’s libretto (and Adams’s score), in which the very idea of voices being “ours,” identifiable as belonging uniquely to us and expressing our particular concerns, appears problematic from start to finish. Instead, the truth is that Melville’s novel reads “us,” that it dictates the terms in which “we” attempt to talk about ourselves and thus shapes our understanding of the world “we” live in, questioning—and, to a considerable extent, restricting—“our” interpretive agency. In the end, the very use of the pronoun “we” raises thorny issues in this context, both because nothing guarantees the privileges usually associated with the first person, and because collective identity is itself analogous to a fiction, an unstable textual construct over which “we” have little control. Dramatically as well as musically, The Death of Klinghoffer is very much unlike Nixon in China, Goodman’s previous collaboration with John Adams. Whereas the earlier opera attempts to give voice to well-known figures such as President Nixon and Mao Zedong, sometimes going so far as to borrow extensively from historical records of their actual conversations (Johnson 4), Klinghoffer is filled with allegorical characters who speak on behalf of entire nations and whose identity seems curiously hazy even when they happen to be based on real people. For instance, the protagonist only appears mid-way through the performance and sings exactly one aria before being summarily executed,9 so that it is difficult to see him as anything other than an Everyman figure whose personality matters less than his ability to express our common humanity. The collective, embodied by an impressive series of musically rich choruses, soon takes precedence over the individual; and the choruses themselves form strangely unstable configurations, as in the opera’s Prologue when the same group of singers successively performs the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” and the “Chorus of Exiled Jews” (Goodman 75-88). This is the exact opposite of what happens in Greek tragedy or in Handelian oratorio, where the chorus usually acts as a single, clearly identifiable character; and the final emancipation of voice from any type of personal control occurs in Act 2, Scene 2 when Leon Klinghoffer’s dead body sings a lengthy aria moments after being thrown overboard (Goodman 125-127).

7Goodman’s libretto does, none the less, testify to its characters’ “persistence,” not because they speak or sing forcefully enough to make others wear their “colors,” but on the contrary because they need to try extraordinarily hard in order to speak at all. The same can be said of Adams’s score, which weaves a dense web of stylistic allusions as if to emphasize the extent to which the characters need to struggle in order to access a musical language that truly reflects their identities and expresses their values. Many of the secondary characters prove unable to reach beyond worn-out clichés, like the Austrian Woman whose aria is a parody of Schoenbergian Sprechgesang, or the British Dancing Girl who tells her grisly tale to the accompaniment of 1980s-style pop music. This makes them sound like caricatures of themselves; the bouncy rhythms supporting the British Dancing Girl’s story of brutality and intimidation suggest a lack of seriousness that undercuts her frightening narrative, and the Austrian Woman’s harsh, discordant tones emphasize her arrogance and lack of empathy for the other victims of the hijacking, not the very real horrors she endured on her own as she spent several days locked up in a bathroom, unable to eat and fearful for her life. Unlike these comic interludes, the “Aria of the Falling Body” rises to a lofty level of spirituality and emotional intensity; but Adams’s description of it as a Gymnopédie—alongside obvious borrowings from, or allusions to, Erik Satie’s famous compositions, such as the violin ostinato and the winding, repetitive melodic line—again suggests that the character is struggling to express himself in a musical language that is not originally his own, and which Adams devised in deliberate imitation of another composer. Even more troubling issues arise with the music written for the Arab characters, including the four hijackers and the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. In interviews, Adams insists that he was keen to distance himself from the type of cultural appropriation that he associates with Puccini’s Turandot (Adams & Kernis 186); he also credits the Palestinian critic Edward Said with having alerted him to the perils of Orientalism, which permits Euro-American culture to “[gain] in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said 3). In spite of this, the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” unfolds in typically Orientalist fashion as the melismatic vocal line contrasts with a pulsing background reminiscent of Adams’s post-minimalist training; likewise, Mamoud’s aria, “Now It Is Night,” combines the sounds of string and wind instruments with the soloist’s voice in a manner recalling Aida’s famous Nile aria (“O Patria Mia”). Coming from a composer schooled in postcolonial theory, this is not an unthinking relapse into clichéd modes of musical representation, and it is likely that this deployment of Orientalist tropes is meant to serve a critical purpose as it reveals the characters’ desire, and, in Mamoud’s case, inability to repudiate stereotypes that rob them of their right to be considered as “free subject[s] of thought and action” (Said 3). The Exiled Palestinians’ elegant melismas are associated with the world of memory, fantasy, and cultural allusion, but this dreamy, introspective music fails to address the power struggle at the heart of the tragedy, and a return to reality takes place when the chorus suddenly switches to syllabic singing, spitting out the words “Israel laid all to waste” in a manner that foreshadows the brutal act on which the entire plot hinges. Unlike the opening chorus, Mamoud’s aria sets up an echo chamber in which he remains trapped as he comments on the saccharine love songs he hears on the radio; what it displays is his damaging lack of self-awareness, and he proves unable to understand his own situation save in the most clichéd and sentimental terms. This sets him—like Verdi’s Ethiopian princess—on a course of failure and eventual self-destruction.

8In this context, the Melvillian echoes suggest less an act of Bloomian “revisionism” than a form of ventriloquism whereby the past takes possession of the present, shaping our response to recent events and providing ways of narrating them, but also betraying our inability to escape the murderous tyranny of history, which compels us to repeat the errors of our predecessors. Thus, the opera performs an act of reverse misprision as Moby-Dick proves far “stronger” than Alice Goodman’s self-consciously “belated” effort. In turn, this says a great deal about Melville’s ability to surface where one least expects him to, like Ishmael clinging to Queequeg’s casket; and one could venture the hypothesis that not explicitly quoting Melville—all the while allowing Melvillian allusions to proliferate in texts that appear haunted by his uncanny presence/absence—is one of the ways in which Goodman, not to say American culture at large, attempts to take the full measure of his measurelessness.

  • 10 Moby-Dick is not the opera’s sole intertext, although it is certainly the most visible one owing to (...)

9This involves something very like a paradox. Unlike Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, The Death of Klinghoffer neither acknowledges Melville’s novel as its principal intertext10 nor openly designates it as a repository of Stoff or source material; instead, the book is tacitly treated as a resource on which readers/audience members can draw as they try to come to terms with its alien—and, to many, alienating—subject matter. Melville provides a language that makes the drama relatable to an American audience and ensures minimal intelligibility in a situation that might otherwise leave them confused; but Melville’s whole point is to test the limits of intelligibility by focusing on the intractable mystery of the real, as distinct from the colors in which we self-servingly attempt to dress it: 

And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues […] are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; […]—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us like a leper (Melville 195).

10This may go some way towards explaining why the opera’s troubled American reception is so strikingly at odds with its unproblematic acceptance in other countries. The central, polemical point—about America’s inability (or unwillingness) to respond properly to the Middle Eastern crisis—is one that uniquely challenges American audiences because it calls into question the tropes on which American culture relies for purposes of self-understanding, suggesting that they cannot be trusted to reveal the truth when their real function is to show that there is no such thing. How can a novel about the breakdown of meaning assist in the production of meaning—especially if the novel in question has been so thoroughly assimilated into the culture that it shapes its readers’ very mode of thinking?

11This question is answered in several ways, one of which has to do with the conditions of its contemporary reception in a particularly difficult context. As John Adams points out, The Death of Klinghoffer attempts to stage a tense encounter with an Other about whom many “comfortable, self-satisfied Americans” like himself often know next to nothing (Adams 2008, 153); therefore, the libretto attempts to “educate” the intended audience, much as it required the composer to study Middle Eastern history once he had perceived the full extent of his ignorance (153). However, this encounter quickly takes a traumatic turn. As Adams recounts,

[when composing the music for The Death of Klinghoffer, I felt that] I would have to create the feeling of what it would be like having a gin and tonic on the deck of this luxury liner and suddenly, instead of on the front page of the New York Times, here—in real life!—is a Palestinian with a Kalichnikov [sic] rifle shouting at you to get up or else you’ll be shot. (Adams & Kernis 186)

12According to Sandor Ferenczi, the immediate consequence of trauma is to cause “a psychotic split, paralysis of all psychic activity, of motility, perceptions and thought” (Dupont 236). As a result, the traumatic event is not properly experienced, let alone understood; hence the patient’s compulsion to revisit the scene in an attempt to take control of something that has never truly been felt at all, yet demands to be taken into account. This is apparent in the structure of the libretto, which remains curiously retrospective throughout; the main point is not to enact the death of Klinghoffer, but to try and recapture it in a series of dramatic monologues delivered ex post facto, as the characters try to make sense of what has befallen them. The Captain recounts:

It was just after 1:15;
I was awake, but lying down
As I had spent a sleepless night
Before we docked that morning,
(Goodman 89)

13This feature of Goodman’s text is so pronounced that it eventually calls into question the work’s generic identity. Action gives way to recollection; dramatic suspense is virtually nonexistent (if only because the title forewarns even the most historically naïve spectator about the central character’s tragic fate), lending The Death of Klinghoffer the sort of meditative pace less commonly associated with opera than with oratorios such as El Niño (1999), Adams’s celebration of the Nativity, or The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), his retelling of the Passion narrative.

14Ultimately, what is at stake here is the crucial role played by memory, both when it fails to provide a complete picture of events whose destructive force continues to paralyze the psyche, and when the slow piecing together of a coherent story progressively assuages the pain caused by the original, unlived moment of crisis. In this regard, Melville’s text appeals both because of its privileged status as an established American classic, a master narrative in terms of which the unthinkable can somehow be accommodated, and because it confirms that the American experience of otherness has always been, on some level, one of abject terror. A further, even more cogent reason for the fascination exerted in this context by Moby-Dick lies in Melville’s suggestion that meaning and meaninglessness are ultimately indistinguishable—that “a dumb blankness, full of meaning” lies at the heart of what we call the world (Melville 195). On this level, the paradox resides not so much in the manner Melville’s text is deployed as in the text itself, which, like the Biblical writing on the wall, hovers on the brink of intelligibility yet, when properly deciphered, foretells disaster. The trauma of Klinghoffer’s violent death is somehow Melvillian because the act of reading Melville is in itself traumatic—because it places readers in the difficult position of suspending interpretation in the face of something too appalling to be fully comprehended, only to discover that it will endlessly return to haunt them until they have accepted its dark lessons and allowed themselves to be “stab[bed] from behind with the thought of annihilation” (Melville 195). True, there are significant disparities between the original Melvillian scenario and the story of the murdered tourist; but all traumas, however different in origin, amplitude, and historical/political import, are comparable to the extent that the subject fails to experience them properly at first, taking refuge in a paralysis that temporarily shields it from having to understand them. Hence the “strength” of a novel such as Moby-Dick, whose persistence is that of the “colorless, all-color […] from which we shrink” (Melville 195). It owes its canonical status, not to what we think we understand about it, but to what, in it, insistently demands to be known even as we “gaze [ourselves] blind” at its mysteries (Melville 195); it does not educate us, but questions the self in search of an education: knowledge can complete the subject, but it can also expose its essential incompleteness, forcing it to acknowledge its limitations and sometimes even tearing it to shreds. As an American opera, The Death of Klinghoffer is both aware of this precedent and unable to transcend it, since it is a defining property of trauma that it brings about “a state of passivity [and] non-resistance” (Dupont 236), the exact opposite of Bloomian “persistence.”

15In other words, if it is true that Moby-Dick is a resource on which Alice Goodman draws, then it must be viewed as a critical resource, in the sense that it serves both as a signifier for the crisis with which Goodman’s libretto attempts to deal and as the touchstone against which its essential weakness is measured—provided that “weakness” is not understood here as a synonym for artistic failure, but on the contrary as the aesthetic equivalent of the condition of belated powerlessness that, in The Death of Klinghoffer, characterizes the present era’s inability to put a stop to the violence it has unleashed. In his examination of Moby-Dick’s place in contemporary culture, Insko notes a curious paradox. On the one hand, most of the allusions he studies fail to engage with Melville’s novel in any significant way: “the […] trope draws only upon prior knowledge of the reference itself; it is in this sense its own referent” (Insko 24). Thus, Melvillian echoes really point, not to a specific text, but to a “field of discourse” (21) where no settled meanings exist and it is the speaker’s, or writer’s, responsibility to come to terms with this “dehiscence” (23). Ironically, this is also the point of Melville’s narrative: “popular culture’s reading of Moby-Dick […] is no less overdetermined and grounded in a protean view of […] the text’s meaning […] than the polysemy always already assumed by academic readings” (29). To put it bluntly, Melville’s novel does not have to be read—or even, one might add, to be openly acknowledged—in order to stand for meaning’s failure to form stable and readily available configurations; hence the powerful hold it exerts on a culture obsessed with this lack and its consequences. The Death of Klinghoffer is a case in point. Marilyn Klinghoffer exclaims at the end of her final aria

If a hundred
People were murdered
And their blood
Flowed in the wake
Of this ship like
Oil, only then
Would the world intervene.
They should have killed me.
I wanted to die.
(Goodman 132)

16In a libretto written during the First Intifada, the character’s angry, desperate words strike a characteristic note of bitter helplessness as she contemplates the long series of missed opportunities that have led to the disaster: the only solution she can think of relies on a counterfactual scenario, and a tragic one at that since she cannot envision an end to the killings, not even in her wildest dreams. Thus, it appears that the violence is due, in part, to a failure of the imagination, a fatal weakness Goodman both acknowledges and turns to good account in her deployment of a theatrical form that, paradoxically, allows the unseen to take precedence over what takes place in front of the audience. “The drama’s done. Why then does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck,” exclaims Ishmael in the Epilogue of Moby-Dick (Melville 573). Melville uses the word “drama” figuratively; Goodman literalizes the metaphor by deciding to write for the stage—but the type of drama she chooses is one that deliberately eschews the legacy of Seneca or Artaud’s theater of cruelty in favor of a strategy of indirection, showing little but constantly gesturing toward the hidden, nameless other beyond the reach of representation.

17True, she adopts the traditional framework of tragedy—complete with chorus and a sacrificial victim who, unlike Iphigenia (or Isaac, the biblical Ishmael’s half-brother), cannot count at the last minute on the help of a benevolent deity; and she chooses to write her libretto in verse, often preferring the iambic tetrameter with which her in-depth knowledge of Metaphysical poetry has familiarized her. However, this effort at measured expression ultimately reveals, by contrast, her fascination with what is “measureless to man,” inscribing her work, despite its contemporary subject matter, in a Romantic tradition of which Melville was also very much aware. The entire action happens offstage; most of it is reported in a series of retrospective speeches, and the crucial event, the title character’s death, is later understood to have happened while his wife was singing an aria about something else (Goodman 120-122). She comments on hearing the truth:

The whole time I thought
He was all right,
Below decks somewhere
Being cared for.
We heard them fire.
It didn’t register,
(Goodman 129)

18In other hands than Goodman’s, this could have been an invitation to imagine the full horror of a situation to which no mode of direct stage presentation could ever do full justice; but the haunting aria sung by Klinghoffer’s body as it sinks into the depths of the Mediterranean reverses the perspective and invites us to view the killing, not from the point of view of the survivors, but from that of the dead man as he bids farewell to the known universe: 

May the Lord God
And His creation
Be magnified
In dissolution […]
After the war
In this part of town
Good furniture
Exposed to the rain
Buckled and warped (125)

19Despite the regular prosody—and its musical equivalent, the violin ostinato that runs through the entire piece—this is an aria about things falling apart, order dissolving into chaos, and a universe in which nothing, not even religious faith, can dispel a sense of encroaching decay. Here—most likely unbeknownst to the composer—Goodman appears to recall “The Pentecost Castle,” the poetic sequence which opens Geoffrey Hill’s 1978 collection Tenebrae. Similarly written in iambic dimeters, Hill’s poems deal with the “division” between sacred and profane love, “underscored by ‘fallen’ desire, which frustrates and desublimates theological love into something object oriented” (Freer 199); “[e]qually suggestive and undermining of religious belief, the poems succeed not in their affirmation of faith, but in their communication of doubt” (200):

I shall go down
to the lovers’ well
and wash this wound
that will not heal

beloved soul
what shall you see
nothing at all
yet eye to eye

depths of non-being
perhaps too clear
my desire dying
as I desire
(Hill 120)

20Goodman’s rewriting goes one step further, as the speaker seems to take his leave of both eros and agape; the aria’s opening lines are particularly troubling, as it is unclear who is now facing “dissolution”—the dead man as his body sinks to the bottom of the sea, or “the Lord God/And His Creation” as they disappear into nothingness, “buckling” and “warping” like delicate furniture left outside in the rain. The crux of the matter is obviously that Hill’s “Pentecost” sequence is a Christian text dealing, however cautiously, with the idea of resurrection, whereas Klinghoffer is a Jewish character whose faith involves no such promise and to whom the perspective of annihilation therefore does not bring disappointment. By encouraging the audience to consider the situation from his point of view, Goodman shifts attention away from the epistemological—the question of what, if anything, (Klinghoffer’s) life and death turn out to mean—towards the existential, the mysterious and not necessarily unwelcome complementarity of being and nothingness. Far from being invited to broaden their vision by trying to imagine what lies outside the scope of immediate perception, the audience are made to participate in the ultimate act of surrender as they let go of everything, including perception itself: 

But not hurriedly
They were minded
To go far away

To go away
Not to take action (126)

21This, in a sense, is the ultimate trauma, caused not by something that wasn’t experienced when it could have been, but by the breakdown of experience itself, which empties the reassuringly familiar—the family home, “bureau drawers” containing “souvenirs” (125)—of all significance without holding out the promise that some other, more complete narrative could make up for the loss. Paradoxically, this does not bring the performance to a halt; on the contrary, the “Aria of the Falling Body” marks the high point of Adams’s score, as critic Mark Swed observes (325), and possibly also of Goodman’s libretto which, in this section, achieves a Dickinsonian intensity of expression while entirely forgoing the use of the lyrical I in an attempt to convey the fascination of the impersonal. In its weakness lies its strength, one might say; and it is tempting once again to recall Ishmael as he sometimes manages to survive in the shadow of death while clinging to a “coffin life-buoy” thrown in his direction by the bursting of a “button-like black bubble” (Melville 573). Text and music remain afloat, sustained somehow by the unthinkable that lurks underneath the surface of the “shroud”-like sea. There, as in Melville’s great novel, lies “the dark, and our hope” (Goodman 132).

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Adams, John. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Adams, John. The Death of Klinghoffer. New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 1991.

---, and Aaron Jay Kernis. “John Adams: An Interview with Aaron Jay Kernis.” Conjunctions 19 (1992): 174-190.

Beauchamp, Gorman. “Art and the Ambiguity of Terrorism: ‘Benito Cereno’ to The Death of Klinghoffer.” Southwest Review 100:3 (2015): 371-403.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Bravin, Jess. “On ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,’ Justice Ginsburg Finds for the Defense.” The Wall Street Journal, 28 October 2014. Accessed on 25 April 2021.

Brodhead, Richard H. “Trying All Things: An Introduction to Moby-Dick.” New Essays on Moby-Dick. Ed. Richard H. Brodhead. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 1-22.

Cooper, Michael. “With New ‘Death of Klinghoffer,’ Furor Only Grows.” The New York Times, 14 October 2014. Accessed on 25 April 2021.

Dupont, Judith. “La notion de trauma selon Ferenczi et ses effets sur la recherche psychanalytique ultérieure.” Filigrane 9:1 (Spring 2000): 19-31.

Fink, Robert. “Klinghoffer in Brooklyn Heights.” Cambridge Opera Journal 17:2 (July 2005): 173-213.

Freer, Alexander. “‘Love-Runes We Cannot Speak’: Sacred and Profane Love in The Pentecost Castle.” Literature and Theology 26:2 (June 2012): 199-213.

Goodman, Alice. The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). In History Is Our Mother: Three Libretti. Ed. James Williams. New York: New York Review Books, 2017. 71-132.

Hill, Geoffrey. “The Pentecost Castle.” 1978. Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 115-120.

Insko, Jeffrey. “‘All of Us Are Ahabs’: Moby-Dick in Contemporary Public Discourse.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 40:2 (Fall 2007): 19-37.

Johnson, Timothy A. John Adams’s Nixon in China: Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives. London: Ashgate, 2011.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1988.

Reininghaus, Frieder. “Banalität des Ungeheuren: ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ von John Adams in Brüssel.” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 152:5 (1991): 43-44.

Rothstein, Edward. “Seeking Symmetry Between Palestinians and Jews.” The New York Times, 7 September 1991. In The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer. Ed. Thomas May. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2006. 317-320.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. London, Penguin Books, 2003.

Swed, Mark. “Seeking Answers in an Opera.” Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2001. In The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer. Ed. Thomas May. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2006. 321-327.

Taruskin, Richard. “Music’s Dangers and the Case for Control.” The New York Times, 9 December 2001. In The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer. Ed. Thomas May. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2006. 331-339.

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1 So far, the American composer John Adams (b. 1947) has written five operas: Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), both to libretti by Alice Goodman, followed by Doctor Atomic (2005), A Flowering Tree (2006), and Girls of the Golden West (2017). His sixth opera, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, will premiere in San Francisco in September 2022. Alice Goodman (b. 1958) is an American poet and librettist. Educated at Harvard University and Girton College, Cambridge, she is now an Anglican priest; since 2011, she has been Rector of Fulbourn parish in Cambridgeshire. She is the author of three operatic libretti, including her two collaborations with John Adams and an English translation of The Magic Flute, commissioned in 1991 by the Glyndebourne Festival for a production directed by Peter Sellars. She has also written the libretto of A Letter of Rights (2015), a cantata by Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978), as well as additional prose texts for Peter Sellars’s production of the French medieval satire Roman de Fauvel (2022). Alice Goodman was married to the British poet Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016).

2 Many critics have noted that Adams’s score insistently relies on sustained notes in the violins’ upper register; this creates a halo-like effect whose significance has been debated. Richard Taruskin states that it is intended to surround certain characters, at specific points in the plot, with “an aureole […] that sets [them] off as numinous”; he draws a parallel with the St. Matthew Passion where Bach uses a similar device to highlight Jesus’s words (Taruskin 337). This claim has been effectively countered by Robert Fink, who notes that the “halo” identified by Taruskin is present throughout the opera and is not reserved for the specific situations that he has in mind, although its spiritual import is not in doubt (Fink 178-181). In combination with the melancholy sound of the oboe, the “halo” is often associated with the sea, perceived as a quasi-Biblical space of emptiness and revelation; the link is established right at the beginning of Act 1 when the Captain’s narrative is accompanied by a plangent oboe obbligato mingled with drawn-out notes in the violins’ uppermost range, and a similar soundscape surrounds the “Aria of the Falling Body,” sung immediately after Klinghoffer’s corpse has been thrown overboard. Considering that Adams has repeatedly expressed his indebtedness to Wagner’s great music dramas (Adams 2008, 100-102), the oboe melody may recall the desolate English horn solo which, in Act 3 of Tristan und Isolde, suggests Tristan’s desperation as Isolde’s ship fails to appear on the horizon. As to the violin “halo,” it brings to mind similar devices used by Debussy in La Mer (1905) and Britten in the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (1945).

3 Moby-Dick (2010), music by Jake Heggie (b. 1961), libretto by Gene Scheer (b. 1958).

4 Billy Budd (1951, revised 1964), music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), libretto by E. M. Forster (1879-1970) and Eric Crozier (1914-1994).

5 This section of the Prologue was poorly received in 1991 and was therefore withdrawn, with the composer’s consent, after the American premiere (Adams 2008, 164). The music remains unpublished (cf. Adams, 1991 46-47); however, the text is included in the 2017 edition of Goodman’s libretti, suggesting that she views it as integral to her work (Goodman 77-86).

6 In 1991, the opera’s American premiere (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) led to a vigorous controversy when the New York Times critic Edward Rothstein condemned it as anti-Semitic, claiming that it gave “seemingly historical resonance to Palestinian wounds” while showing no empathy for the Jewish victims of terrorism (319). Shortly after 9/11, the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled a series of concerts at which excerpts from The Death of Klinghoffer were to be performed, alleging that they might offend people who had lost relatives and friends in the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center; again, the Times published an essay by the well-known musicologist Richard Taruskin in which he implied that the opera was anti-Semitic and lauded the company’s self-restraint (338). In 2014, the Met premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer was greeted by protesters who described it (mostly without having seen it) as a “celebration of terrorism” (Cooper); the battle took a decidedly political turn as they were joined by leading Republican politicians such as Rudy Giuliani and Michele Bachmann, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg firmly defended the opera, praising its “most sympathetic portrayal of the Klinghoffers” (Bravin). To this day, no such controversy has taken place in other countries, and the opera has enjoyed a successful international career.

7 The most glaring omission occurs in Act 2, when the death scene segues into the Captain’s anguished conversation with Mrs. Klinghoffer after the hijackers’ arrest. The audience never finds out what happened to the four men; more importantly, no mention is made of their links to Abu Abbas (1948-2004), the founder of the Palestine Liberation Front. Likewise, the libretto makes little more than passing references to the First Intifada, which began in 1987, two years after the events, and ended in 1991, a few months after the opera’s premiere, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was revived at the Madrid Peace Conference.

8 The epilogue is omitted in most productions, but Frieder Reininghaus’s German-language review of the Brussels premiere mentions it, suggesting that it was performed in 1991 (43).

9 The generalized treatment of the title character has been taken as proof that Adams and Goodman have less consideration for him than for his Palestinian murderers, whose individualities are much more vividly delineated (Taruskin 337). To a large extent, this is an unfortunate consequence of Adams’s decision to omit the Rumor scene from the prologue, as it provided a welcome glimpse of his home life in suburban America. Ironically, Adams’s choice was made in response to accusations that the Rumor scene itself was anti-Semitic as it denied the opera’s Jewish characters the heroic stature accorded to their Arab opponents (Rothstein 318-319). In the opera as it now stands, heroism is all that remains, minus the humanizing details provided in the original version.

10 Moby-Dick is not the opera’s sole intertext, although it is certainly the most visible one owing to its canonical status. As an informed reader may notice, Goodman’s libretto clearly engages with the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, to whom she was married from 1987 until his death in 2016; it is unclear whether John Adams was aware of this when he wrote the score.

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Electronic reference

Mathieu Duplay, Surviving the Wreck: Herman Melville, The Death of Klinghoffer, and the Power of CatastropheMiranda [Online], 26 | 2022, Online since 20 October 2022, connection on 02 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Mathieu Duplay

Université Paris Cité
LARCA, CNRS, F-75013 Paris, France

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