Has Her Life Been the Proverbial 'Curate's Egg'?
By Susan Mansfield

Alice Goodman, librettist for John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer and now an Anglican priest.
The Scotsman [Edinburgh] - 22 August 2005

The Rev. Alice Goodman (photo: St. Mary's, Kidderminster)Rev. Alice Goodman is job-hunting. Nearing the end of her curacy, she's ready for a church of her own. But she has a rather unusual CV. It's not so much a question of her literature degree from Harvard, or even the fact she was brought up Jewish. It's that she wrote the libretto for one of the most controversial operas of modern times.

Goodman was one-quarter of the partnership which created The Death of Klinghoffer. Her work was critically acclaimed together with that of composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris. Klinghoffer became one of the most successful operas of recent years, but also one of the most contentious. It launched Goodman, now 47, on a personal journey which began in the concert halls of the US and ended in the parish of St. Mary's, Kidderminster.

I meet her at her holiday home, a tiny cottage in Lancashire. Her husband, poet Geoffrey Hill, is in Boston at the moment. Their daughter, Alberta, 17, is awaiting exam results. Goodman's quiet, deliberate voice is at odds with her movements as she breaks up canine squabbles. Life is not peaceful, but it's content. It is very different from the future she imagined. "When I finished writing The Death of Klinghoffer, I remember thinking I've written something so good I didn't know I had it in me to do it," she says. "I imagined a vista of future operas going down the horizon. But the effect was more like 'That woman will never work in opera again'."

John Adams's 'Nixon in China' (libretto by Alice Goodman), performed by soloists and the Orchestra of St. Luke's conducted by Edo de Waart (Nonesuch Records). The premier of Klinghoffer in 1991 was hotly anticipated. Could the hot young team which had produced the hugely successful Nixon in China four years previously repeat their triumph? This time they were being even more daring, taking their subject from a tragic event just six years previously, the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and shooting of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-using American Jew.

The opera was variously accused of being "pro-Palestinian" and part of "a Zionist plot", of "romanticising terrorists" and of anti-Semitism in its portrayal of the Klinghoffers. Jewish groups picketed concert halls. Performances were cancelled. It was denounced by Klinghoffer's daughters, and by synagogues.

Goodman says: "John [Adams] later said that by writing his Violin Concerto [premiered in 1993] he basically saved his career. But a violin concerto has no text." Goodman, as the librettist, took the most heat. The others could diversify. For her, commissions simply dried up.

John Adams's 'The Death of Klinghoffer' (libretto by Alice Goodman), in a BBC film directed by Penny Woolcock and conducted by the composer (Universal Music and Video).She has no regrets. "I knew when I wrote it that what I was writing was true. I always knew that there would be people who would be offended. What I didn't anticipate was this very primitive critical reaction, saying that because Omar [one of the hijackers] has a beautiful aria with beautiful music, he is made to be the hero or because the Klinghoffers are depicted as old people with diseases speaking in a prosaic way, they are being made fools of.

"The important thing for me was making everyone human. That doesn't mean abdicating moral responsibility, or even abdicating judgment, but it did mean not putting a finger on the scales." Sellars, she explains, had strongly pro-Palestinian views. She, Adams and Morris "leaned towards the other side of the boat" to keep the balance. "I don't think of The Death of Klinghoffer as either pro-Zionist, pro-Jewish or pro-Palestinian, but all of these elements exist within it."

Goodman believes that, in the light of 9/11, the opera has a new relevance, and is excited at the prospect of Scottish Opera's new production directed by Anthony Neilson. "Until September 11 most Americans did not have a sense of how much America was hated in some parts of the world."

In her new vocation she supports inter-faith dialogue. The impulse to build bridges has been there ever since childhood. Goodman was brought up a Reform Jew in Minnesota. "We were shown movies of the Holocaust in Sunday school, and the purpose was to cause this little group of progressive, middle-class Jewish children living in the middle of the US to have a Jewish identity, to create a sense of us and them. And it seemed to me that this was the wrong idea altogether."

Ironically, the local rabbi hoped that she would become a rabbi, but she resolutely refused scholarships to Jewish leadership camp. Instead she went to Harvard to study English and American literature: "I wrote poetry and went dancing — this was the disco era."

Then there were postgraduate studies at Cambridge, where she met Hill at a party. He was a brooding figure, clad all in black, 20 years older than she with a failed marriage behind him. "I never thought I would get married."

After a couple of years in the UK she got a call from Sellars, whom she had known at Harvard, asking if she'd like to write the libretto for an opera called Nixon in China by a young unknown composer called John Adams. "I had just been turned down for every junior research fellowship I'd applied for. I said at once that I'd do it as long as it paid as much as a junior research fellowship."

The opera, which dealt with Nixon's 1972 visit to Mao Tse-tung, was groundbreaking. The idea for a Klinghoffer opera came up during Nixon in China rehearsals. It was during this time that Goodman reached the culmination of another, internal journey, and converted to Christianity. "This caused our PR real embarrassment in a kind of farcical way. John and Peter and I had always said cheerfully that if anyone objected to the libretto they could push me forward because I'm Jewish."

Rev. Alice Goodman offering prayers at the 2003 Wyre Forest Holocaust Memorial Day. In the void that followed the Klinghoffer controversy, she started reading philosophy and theology with a view to further study and a possible career in academia. Six years and a degree in theology later, "it became quite clear to other people and to me that I did in fact have a vocation". She was ordained in the Church of England in 2001, "where there is rather more of a tradition of eccentric clergy," she chuckles.

She had, she believed, left writing behind, but found herself working again with Adams and Sellars on Doctor Atomic, an opera about the scientists who built the first atomic bomb. However, after a year on the project she quit — the balance of the partnership had shifted, the old sense of equality had gone. "That," she says, good-naturedly, "had to do with the simple fact that John has gone on from Nixon and Klinghoffer to become a very, very famous and powerful composer, and I've gone on to become a priest in the Church of England!"

She is, however, working on a new project with Sellars, a version of The Consolation of Philosophy. And all that experience in opera is helping a lot with the preaching — in literary terms, she says, a sermon is not unlike an aria. The concert halls of the world and the parish churches of England are not as different as they first appear.

The Death of Klinghoffer is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, tomorrow, 25, 27 and 29 August

(C) 2005 The Scotsman. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

concert reviews
CD reviews
book reviews