It was an ironic redemption when John Adams was awarded the Pulitzer prize for music last year for his September 11 memorial piece On The Transmigration Of Souls. Two years earlier, about seven weeks after the Twin Towers attack, he had been savaged in the New York Times arts pages for romanticising terrorism.

The attack by musicologist Richard Taruskin followed the Boston Symphony’s cancellation of a performance of choruses from his opera The Death Of Klinghoffer. The opera, first performed in 1991, depicts the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists which culminates in the killing of the Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The Boston Symphony decided that in late 2001 this was too sensitive a topic to broach. Taruskin called the opera anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-bourgeois.

Adams’s opera had been controversial from the start when it premiered just after the first Gulf War. His critics fault him for presenting the terrorists sympathetically. One letter writer to the Times complained that he had given all the endearing music to the Palestinians. It’s an absurd claim to anyone who has ever heard the opera, which gives Klinghoffer’s widow heart-rending arias.

Sydney audiences will have the unique opportunity of seeing both Klinghoffer and Transmigration Of Souls in the coming weeks. The Sydney Symphony will present a performance of Transmigration Of Souls while the Dendy Cinema will be presenting three screenings of a new film based on the opera.

Adams was in London working on the Klinghoffer film when he heard about the September 11 attacks.

I thought to myself that it would be impossible to continue with the opera under these conditions. But in fact the opposite turned out to be the case, Adams said in an interview with the music website Andante.com.

Everyone involved in the production -“ the cast, the chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra -“ all seemed to draw something essential from the experience. While we were making the recording of the soundtrack at Abbey Road, I made a point of reading Alice Goodman’s texts before each scene to both the orchestra and the chorus. Her words, so full of wisdom and prescience, seemed to speak perfectly for the mood and I couldn’t help noticing that everyone in the room was listening with complete concentration, Adams said.

He was astounded and horrified with the Boston controversy and refused the Symphony’s request to provide an alternative piece for the concert. Adams said that he saw Leon Klinghoffer as a sacrificial victim not all that different from the crucifixion that is at the heart of the Bach Passions.

The Death Of Klinghoffer treats the murder of Leon Klinghoffer as the tragic event it was -¦ Both Jesus and Leon Klinghoffer were killed because they represented something that was suspect and hated. But the opera doesn’t simply stop here; it also gives voice to the other side. We look into the minds and souls of the Palestinians and see what might have driven them to produce a generation of young men easily willing to give up their lives to make their grievances known, Adams told Andante.

Adams has always chosen very contemporary themes for his operas, having achieved great success with his first work about Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.

I’ve long felt that if opera is going to have any future at all as a living art form it has to take hold of the psychological themes and undercurrents of our present lives, Adams said in the same interview.

BBC music critic Andrew Clements recently described Adams as at the height of his powers.

He has at his fingertips a prodigiously adaptable musical language, in which the whole of the Western tradition, from the Baroque to the present day, is contained, and which borrows from rock and jazz as well. This inclusive approach, and his fastidious, imaginative ear for harmony and instrumental colour, makes his music attractive, accessible and rewarding, Clements wrote in an article lauding a festival of Adams’s work.

In 2002 Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to compose a work for a concert commemorating the first anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks. Adams said that he hoped to achieve in this piece the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering a majestic cathedral.

When you walk into the Chartres Cathedral, for example, you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot. And even though you might be with a group of people, or the cathedral itself filled with other churchgoers or tourists, you feel very much alone with your thoughts and you find them focused in a most extraordinary and spiritual way, Adams said in a recent interview.

The multi-layered orchestral work is a beautiful mix of recorded voices, street sounds, children’s chorus and rich orchestral instrumentation. Adams has not set out to create either a requiem or a narrative about September 11; he prefers to call it a memory space. The links are there -“ the roll call of names -“ if you want to remember that specific event but Adams’s wish has always been that the music and the audience move beyond that event.

Talking about the name, On The Transmigration Of Souls, Adams has said that he wants it to echo not only the movement from life to death but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.

Transmigration Of Souls will be performed with a special video collage of images from Sydney photographer Greg Barrett, commissioned for the performance by the Sydney Festival.

Penny Woolcock’s film of the opera is not just a filmed stage version. It is a completely reinvented filmic version that allows effects not possible on stage -“ we watch Klinghoffer float to the bottom of the ocean. But it is true to Adams’s score, which is beautifully realised.
Both Transmigration and Klinghoffer are deeply moving and deeply challenging works from one of the great living composers. These events are not to be missed by anyone with a passion for contemporary music.

On The Transmigration Of Souls will be performed at the Sydney Opera House on 22 and 23 January at 8pm. Phone 9266 4890 for bookings.

The Death Of Klinghoffer will be shown at the Dendy Opera Quays Cinema at 6:45pm on 23 January and at 1pm on 24 and 25 January. Phone 9247 3800 for bookings.

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