Sing It Again, Klinghoffer: Andrew Billen Thinks Television Should Be Brave and Show More Opera. (Television)
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
I once asked the co-creator of NYPD Blue, Steven Bochco, why his series Cop Rock lasted only six episodes. "Embarrassment," he replied. "People found it too damn embarrassing to watch." The problem was that four times in each programme his policemen would break into song.
I am sure he was right, yet there is nothing intrinsically impossible about having characters singing, even in so apparently naturalistic a medium as television. After all, in real life car chases aren't orchestrated, yet we accept the convention of incidental music. In the heyday of the Hollywood musical, Judy Garland would break into song on trains. Singing worked for Dennis Potter in Pennies from Heaven. Sometimes, television is so histrionic that it seems to strain towards the condition of music, as the authors of ferry Springer: the opera noticed. And the soaps are not called operas for nothing.
Why, then, has television become so phobic about opera? One reason, I think, is that for a long time it did what it had long ceased to attempt to do with nonlyric theatre: it simply pointed the camera at the stage, which is the most boring approach of all. The answer is not to televise opera, but to make opera into television - and this is exactly what Channel 4 did by commissioning Penny Woolcock to remake John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer (Sunday 25 May). Woolcock duly filmed this controversial 1991 opera, about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, as if it were one of her regular docudramas, which is to say with only slightly heightened visual realism.
Potentially, this was going to make the artificiality of the sound all the more obvious. Because of the long choral introduction, it was 19 minutes before anyone actually burst into song, and, I have to admit, I was dreading it. Yet within a few minutes it seemed the most natural thing in the world for a bunch of middle-aged American tourists to be singing about their visit to the Pyramids and their hip operations. The singing was neither absurd nor pretentious, but it alerted the hearer that the chatter took place against the background of history.
Klinghoffer is one of those pieces that believe of causes, and the causes of causes, there is no end. Its opening words come from its Chorus of Exiled Palestinians: "My father's house was razed/In 1948/ When the Israelis passed/Over our street." The Chorus of Exiled Jews then comes on and sings us back to the Holocaust. The second act, prefaced by a to-camera piece on what looks like Channel 4 News, retold the story of Ishmael, outcast son of Abraham, ancestor of the Arabs and half brother of Isaac. …