by Robert Levine
John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer is back in the news. Based on the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985 by Palestinian pirates, and their murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jewish passenger, it was first performed in Brussels in 1991. Controversy, debate, whining, rage, boycotts, indignation — both righteous and demented — have followed the opera’s performance history since. It will be produced next season at the Metropolitan Opera.
The Met’s “Live in HD” program, in which they transmit live performances from the stage to movie theaters all over the U.S. and abroad, brings plenty of money into the opera company and allows people to see grand opera at its best for a fraction of the price they would pay for a ticket — even for a regional company. The program also introduces an entirely new audience to opera on a limited-risk basis. Next season’s “Live in HD” series was scheduled to present ten operas, one of which was The Death of Klinghoffer. On the day the list was announced, some opera lovers and some non-opera lovers alike found themselves up in arms. Many Jewish groups began pressuring Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager (who happens to be Jewish) to cancel the performances and the transmission in cinemas. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who personally spoke with Gelb, said he had not seen or heard Klinghoffer and did not believe the work is anti-Semitic. Foxman did, however, fear that now, when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe (France, Hungary), the opera might fan those flames.
Gelb and Foxman “compromised.” The performances in-house will go on as planned, but the HD transmission has been cancelled.
In the past thirty years, there have been operas produced on the subjects of Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the Playboy centerfold and fortune-hunter/drug addict/semi-clown/white trash media phenomenon Anna Nicole Smith, the creation and detonation of the Atomic Bomb, and internet chat rooms and interactions within that medium that have led to murder — in addition to the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Putting aside for a moment a discussion about whether or not these so-called “CNN operas,” which may or may not have sociopolitical agendas, actually make good subject matter for opera, should any be censored? There was a fuss about Nixon in China (also by Adams, incidentally) — were the events presented, in fact, as they happened? Henry Kissinger is portrayed monstrously; Madame Mao is a harridan. Was this fair? But nothing was cancelled; performances, including one on TV (this was before “Live in HD”), came and went, and the opera is revived occasionally. Politics may inconvenience our artistic experience, and an interesting discussion might be had about whether or not opera should be a political activity at all — but we are talking about censorship, and we are against censorship, unless, of course, a work’s purpose is to inflame people and entice them to action or to foment a revolution. (A side note: Daniel Auber’s 1828 opera, “La muette de Portici,” was seen in Paris right after the French Revolution of 1830, in which King Charles X was overthrown; when it was presented a few months later in Brussels, a patriotic duet caused a riot which led directly to the Belgian Revolution and Belgian independence. So it can happen, although it was not Auber’s intent.)
Is “Klinghoffer” one-sided? Very early in the opera, there is a chorus of Exiled Palestinians, beginning lyrically and introspectively with the words
My father’s house was razed
in nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis
Passed over our street.
Later, they sing more jaggedly,
Let the supplanter look upon his work
Will take the stones he broke
And break his teeth.
Inflammatory, to be sure. This is followed by a chorus of Exiled Jews, voicing their misery at not having a land for themselves any longer. In act two, a Palestinian sings
Soldiers fighting a war.
We are not criminals
And we are not vandals,
But men of ideals…
and another sings of the death of his mother.
More than equal opportunities to express themselves have been seen as proof that the opera’s creators, Adams and librettist Alice Goodman (who was born a Jew, but is now a rector in an Episcopalian church — make of that what you will), see the Palestinians and Jews as morally equal. But it isn’t equal — they do, in fact, give more time to the plight of the Palestinians than to either the plight of the Israelis or, more locally, the Klinghoffers. And they equate Jews with Israelis — one of the pirates (the word “terrorist” is never used; nor was it in the press at the time) sings, “Wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat.” Nasty and sanctimonious indeed. His house may have been razed and he may be a soldier, but he pushes an innocent, crippled man to his death. And that man in not an Israeli, he is an American Jew.
I personally find the opera preachy, talky, musically ambiguous, and so filled with philosophical conundra that I find little to enjoy. The themes — both musical and textual — are repetitive, and the text never soars as it should — as it must — in opera. The music is neither particularly dissonant nor engaging; an expressive solo for Klinghoffer’s widow near the work’s close — “It should have been me” — has great emotional clout, but she sings it right after we discover that she is dying of cancer. It’s manipulative. What are we supposed to feel at that moment? Moral and emotional haziness is rarely the stuff of opera; on the contrary, specific feelings are usually underlined and highlighted.
And so here is the real problem: The terrorists — or pirates — are depicted as human beings, both individually and as a chorus. Their horrible plight is made clear. Their crime is still startling — if you didn’t know in advance, you would certainly not assume that they would throw a wheelchair-bound man overboard to his death. And the victims are imperfect human beings — irritating, bigoted, self-satisfied. Klinghoffer’s daughter, Lisa, attended a 1991 performance of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Afterwards, she released the following statement:
“The juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”
It is hard to argue with this. Is The Death of Klinghoffer an anti-Semitic work? I don’t think so. But then again, it is hardly pro-Semitic. It should not be either; that’s not its job. Should it be allowed to be seen? Of course. The Hungarian and French rightwingers will hardly latch on to it as proof of anything, and they don’t deal in facts, they deal in hatred. Even if one comes away from the work feeling more for the Palestinians than the Israelis — a stance not altogether difficult to imagine nowadays — Lisa Klinghoffer’s statement remains true. The pirates’ actions were ugly, criminal and cowardly, and did not get one house rebuilt.
Presenting an opera based on controversial events which occurred within living memory of the audience takes the opera out of the realm of art and places it into a context which makes it impossible for the viewer/listener to enjoy it for what it is and not as some sort of political statement. It turns it into propaganda. And while there is a good argument to prove that this was at least a portion of Alice Goodman’s agenda — and perhaps John Adams’ as well — people should still be permitted to see it.
Robert Levine is the author of Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera (2011) and Maria Callas: A Musical Biography, among others. He is senior editor at ClassicsToday.com, a regular expert for the Metropolitan Opera intermission listener quizzes, and offers audio-visual lectures on opera appreciation.