Journal of the Society for American Music

Research Article

Re-producing Klinghoffer: Opera and Arab Identity before and after 9/11



John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer stages the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. This essay proposes that the representations of Palestinian hijackers in three different productions show the opera reinventing itself before and after 9/11, when Arab identity hovers ambiguously in the U.S. Imaginary. Analyses focus in particular on distinct forms of collaboration among artists and media. In 1991 thorny associations among media produce an ambiguous Arab subject that reflects, and encourages, a capability for dialogue around the topic of terrorism. By contrast, two productions in 2003 rely on film and photograph to situate rigidly delineated Palestinian characters—demonstrating a dependency on visual media and a consequent highlighting of race that may be emblematic of a post-9/11 era. The essay concludes that different forms of collaboration in The Death of Klinghoffer can be approached as a microcosm of social and political interactions taking place far beyond the opera proper.


I gratefully acknowledge Robert Fink, Richard Taruskin, and Kyle Gann for generously providing comments and editorial advice. Earlier publications by Taruskin and Fink on this subject have also been vital to this essay. My thanks as well to Sharon Lehner for access to the BAM archives; the University of Richmond for grants supporting research on this article; Duke University's music department for comments on an early version of this paper that I presented at a 2007 colloquium; and finally to John Adams, whose music continues to inspire me.