TV opera comes of age

Channel 4 is screening a version of The Death of Klinghoffer, the opera based on the hijack of the Achille Lauro. Its composer, John Adams, and director, Penny Woolcock, tell Stuart Price how their cinematic approach should attract new viewers
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The Independent Culture

John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the cruise liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985, elicits a political response. Penny Woolcock's new £1.8m film adaptation of it, commissioned by Channel 4, has now given it a further political kick and enhanced the human drama of the piece. "It's how I make films," she says.

Even without the current world climate, this naturalistic reimagining was never going to dampen the fires that have surrounded this "docu-opera". At its US stage premiere in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it was subjected to bomb threats; in 1992, Jewish groups protested at the San Francisco Opera performances, opposing the perceived "pro-Palestinian" slant. Others claim it as part of a "Zionist plot", because it grants a heroic dignity to Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound Jewish-American hostage who was shot and pushed overboard; some view the same scene as anti-Semitic. The opera's supposed crime, made starker in the film, is that it gives eloquent voice to both sides of the political divide in the Middle East, creating back-stories for characters who are terrorists and, in the process, attempting to humanise them. "It's convenient to have one point of view, because it stops you having to think," the director says of some of the critics.

Adams has produced two of the most talked-about operas of the past 50 years, a strange legacy for a composer who dislikes the discipline. "I hated opera and never went," he says in the accompanying Channel 4 profile, John Adams: American Classic. "In fact, I rarely go now. It's ironic that to a lot of people I'm only known as an opera composer." His first, Nixon in China (1987), is a comedy of diplomacy, detailing the meeting in 1972 between Nixon and Mao Tse-tung. There was no such humour in The Death of Klinghoffer. Adams worked with the same librettist, Alice Goodman, and, while the libretto that Adams showed to Jewish friends didn't seem incendiary, it became "more provocative" when it was given Peter Sellars' "theatrical imagination", according to Adams.

"People came [to the premiere] ready to be offended," he says. They weren't disappointed. This new adaptation, shown at a number of film festivals, has already engendered some lively post-screening disputes, according to Woolcock. What is hard to dispute, though, is that it is a monumental piece of work; the LA Times has called it the "first masterpiece of cinematic opera".

To be honest, it's not up against the hottest of competition. Opera on screen has never really hit the spot, as Jennifer Barnes shows in her book Television Opera. While a number have been successful, among them Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors from 1951, others have merely highlighted the artificiality of opera. What Woolcock has done, instead, is to bring a modern, improvisational and aggressive style of film-making to the genre. She has not simply filmed an opera; she has made a film.

Woolcock admits to knowing nothing about opera before she started, but says she was moved by a concert performance of excerpts at the Barbican four years ago. "I didn't know what the rules were, so I broke them. Whether I succeeded or failed," she says, "I would be doing something radical." Her approach eschews an every-note-is- sacred reverence, although she worked closely with Adams, the film's musical director, when writing the screenplay, for which she made cuts to the libretto, reordered lines and added contextual background imagery. Adams composed musical bridges to accommodate some of Wool- cock's edits, all of which had to be sanctioned by the composer, she says, "for it to have musical credibility".

It's clear from the first minutes that Woolcock has completely rethought Sellars' non-naturalistic staging. She has taken the dramatic, visual imperative of cinema, in particular restructuring the opening to include a new scene of Marilyn Klinghoffer spitting at the terrorists in a police identity parade.

"We're hoping it will draw in a new audience," says Woolcock, "so I could not have 15 minutes of black-and-white footage to begin it [used for the opening choruses]. The audience has to know, from the first scene, that something is going to happen."

Woolcock has also acceded to the viewer's expectations of a ship-set piece of theatre, in contrast with the more austerely staged productions of the past. She has playfully recreated the look of a cruise. The costume designer, she says, was "told to be a bit cartoony about it". In one scene, she has Klinghoffer (Sanford Sylvan) unpacking his suitcase and longingly caressing the brightly coloured shirt he takes out of it, a pair of Panama hats sitting on the bed beside him. Woolcock saysthe costumes are needed "to help the audience, because we're telling a story without dialogue".

The desire for realism also extended to pre-production. The singers playing the four terrorists attended a gun-training school in Stoke Poges, where they learnt how to handle weapons comfortably. "You can tell when actors aren't used to holding guns," says Woolcock, who also applied some of the psychology behind gun-handling to delineate and express character in the film: the nervous Omar is "messing around with it all the time", while the sensitive Mamoud "carries the gun like he would a baby or a stack of books". Sylvan and Yvonne Howard (playing Marilyn Klinghoffer) both spent time at a disability rehabilitation centre.

The cast lived on the ship throughout the 10-day shoot of the exterior liner scenes, cruising from Cyprus to Malta and back. (In one of the ironies that seems to follow this opera around, Woolcock could afford to book a whole liner for 10 days because, since September 11, bookings for Mediterranean cruises have dropped through the floor.) The singing was recorded live on ship with the help of a rather Heath Robinson set-up. Adams videotaped a recording of the music with the LSO before the shoot took place (he was, unsurprisingly, working on it on 11 September 2001). On ship, it was broadcast at low volume over hidden speakers; Murray Hipkin, assistant conductor at the ENO, conducted the singers from behind the camera, a portable videoscreen hanging round his neck, on which he could watch a synchronised video of Adams conducting. Post-production work on the singing was minimal, says Woolcock, involving a mix of boom and neck microphones and the addition of reverb. The result is a more realistic sound, one that attempts to reproduce the acoustics of the scene's location.

Woolcock's go-where-you-want-and-I'll-follow-with-camera style of direction was liberating on set, but it was in the editing of the film that the freeform nature of her technique hit its unyielding nemesis. The rigidity of a score meant that specified action had to take place within an exact time-frame, regardless of dramatic imperatives. She had only a 40-second window in which to separate the hostages into nationalities, move them on to deck, take the lead hijacker to the captain and then get them both from the bridge to the upper deck and show the hijackers deciding the order in which hostages would be killed. "It's a strange way of cutting film," she says.

It has worked out superbly, none the less. And it will not be the last of Woolcock's ambitious attempts to reinvigorate opera on celluloid. The two are planning to collaborate again in 2005. Woolcock will write the libretto and Adams the score, for a piece that Woolcock says "will be conceived as a film from the beginning" and will have "a contemporary theme". She wants to make it "as hard for someone to adapt for stage as Klinghoffer was to adapt for film".

'John Adams: American Classic', Saturday, 8pm, C4; 'The Death of Klinghoffer', Sunday, 6.55pm, C4; John Adams conducts 'El Niño' at Barbican Hall (0845 120 7500) on 26 & 28 June