You’re well known for your work as the artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic and, most famously, for War Horse in London and New York. What about The Death of Klinghoffer—how did this project come about?
The starting point is John Berry, the artistic director of the English National Opera. He had seen some of the work I’d done at the National Theatre in London, and—partly because I use music a lot
in what I do theatrically—he asked me whether I’d like to direct something for the ENO. One of the things he suggested was The Death of Klinghoffer. So I read the libretto and thought, “That’s a very extraordinary piece of writing, and in lots of ways not obviously dramatic.” I listened to the recording and thought that the combination of poetic text and incredibly emotional music made it a very exciting prospect.
The opera has met with controversy over the years. Did you hesitate to take it on?
There is absolutely no doubt that the murder of Leon Klinghoffer is the crime at the center of this opera, and that the people who committed it are clearly shown as having committed a crime. So my only hesitation was about whether I could make a responsible investigation
of the questions the opera raises, and whether I felt I had anything that I could offer to help it communicate its extraordinary complexity to an audience in live performance. I’ve spent most of my life working in theater, and in theater the feeling I most fight against is that it is just a pretty room with old-fashioned words at one end and dozing people at the other end. My job in theater is to make sure that doesn’t happen, and in opera it’s the same. Some people assume that opera is simply an expensive way of reminding ourselves what opera used to be like. It’s a strange combination of nostalgia and
a conservative version of beauty. But opera was never like that historically. It was clearly a rowdy and progressive art form in the 18th century when it was finding its form. The Marriage of Figaro, for example, which is playing at the Met now, was clearly a radical and disturbing piece when it was first written. So I think it’s very exciting when you find a late-20th-century opera that is genuinely engaging with the most difficult questions in our world today.
How do you deal with a libretto that does not always have a clear linear thread?
It was a very, very slow process, because you look at the score and the libretto
and you just think, first of all, “How do we make it clear to the audience what’s going on?” And, secondly, “How do we make it feel dramatic?” But the opera
has very, very suggestive text and very, very powerful music, which is constantly mobilizing the emotions that are underneath the drama. In rehearsal you feel as if you’re working on an eccentrically built but very powerful machine. If you can get the story released, an audience can feel extraordinary things. That is incredibly motivating.
When you’re working on the production, how much are you thinking about the actual historical facts of the Achille Lauro hijacking? Or are you focused mainly on what’s written in the score?
I think it’s important that the audience have an opportunity to find out what really happened. But John Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, did not set out to provide a complete historical record of the events of the hijacking. They did research into what actually happened, and used it as a springing-off point for something that’s more associative and reflective on those events. Our solution to that conundrum is that, throughout our production of the opera, there is a show of projected text, which lets the audience know that the opera is not a historical reconstruction, while providing some of the details of what did happen, at appropriate points in the story where it would help.
This interview was first published online in October 2014 and in the Met’s Playbill in November 2014.