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The Klinghoffer Opera: It’s Much Worse than You Think

Myriam Miedzian
November 9, 2014
by Myriam Miedzian imagesI’VE BEEN FOLLOWING the Klinghoffer-at-the-Met saga ever since the controversy started back in the spring, when the Metropolitan Opera announced that it would be presenting John Adams’ opera in the fall. I tried to get a libretto at the time but did not find it available. Online, I did find some of the lyrics — taken from a film based on the opera — and to me, as a Jew deeply concerned about anti-Semitism, they didn’t look good. opera23n-1-webIn late October, the Met made the libretto available. I read it and was shocked by the extreme imbalance between the Israeli and Palestinian positions. It was much worse than the impression I had gotten from my online research and from most of the reviews I had read by then. One example of the imbalance: the hijackers were given sixty lines of anti-Israeli lyrics, while the Jews got twenty-seven lines of anti-Palestinian terrorist lyrics. After reading the libretto, I decided that in all fairness I had to go see the opera. Perhaps the hijackers were depicted as such violent, murderous thugs that their lyrics, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, would be totally discounted. That’s not how it turned out. OUT OF FOUR HIJACKERS, there was only one brutal thug, Rambo — although we never see him seriously hurting anyone, and in a later aria, a passenger described as a “British Dancing Girl” characterizes him as one of those men who act tough but aren’t really terribly violent. Rambo just “slapped a few people around a bit...” He does deliver the following lines addressed to Klinghoffer:
You are always complaining Of your suffering But wherever poor men Are gathered they can Find Jews getting fat You know how to cheat The simple; exploit The virgin Pollute Where you have exploited Defame those you cheated... You give no charity To the oppressed What did your watch cost? Is it solid gold? How many mouths could be filled If this were sold.
He says this — and more — in response to Klinghoffer, who has just delivered the only lines in the opera critical of Palestinian terrorism:
You like to kill Was it your pal Who shot that little girl At the airport in Rome? You would have done the same. So much anger in you. And hate... Children in the Promised Land learn to sleep underground Because of your shelling... You pour gasoline Over women Passengers on The bus to Tel Aviv And burn them alive You don’t give a shit. Excuse me, about Your grandfather’s hut, His sheep and his goat... You just want to see People die.
As for the three other hijackers, Molqi assures the captain, “No one will be hurt... A little discomfort/ For a short time/ ... these people must have food./ Where are the blankets?” In the next scene Mahmoud holds a transistor radio and tries to get local stations from Arab countries. He tells the captain, “I don’t like the news. But I love these/ Songs whose stories/ Are all the same/ Lovers. A time of parting...” He continues describing and talking about the themes of love songs. After a while he goes on to his mother’s story: “She was killed/ With the old men/ And children in/ Camps at Sabra/ And Shatila/ Where Almighty God/ In his mercy showed/ My decapitated/ Brother to me/ And in his mercy/ Allowed me to close/ My brother’s eyes/ And wipe his face.” Soon after he goes on to wax poetic about “Those birds flying/ Above us/ ... Doesn’t the earth belong to them” and on and on. Molqi orders Omar, the teenage hijacker, to shoot Klinghoffer. Omar is pained, reluctant to murder. A woman in a black abaya appears and sits with him — I figure she must be his mother, or rather the mother who he thinks would want him to be a strong man and kill the enemy, so she can be proud of him. He goes ahead and shoots Klinghoffer soon after. In fact, apart from Rambo, the hijackers are so likable that when they disembark and march down the gangplank to Cairo, some of the women on the boat cheerily wave goodbye to them!! Did I see the same opera as Justin Davidson who writes in New York magazine that “the killers are not particularly likable, violent thugs”? ACCORDING TO MANY REVIEWERS, equal time is given to both sides to voice their complaints in the choruses. In the opera I saw, not only did the Palestinians get more than twice as much time, but besides the Klinghoffer lyrics quoted above, the time allotted to the Jews consisted of mostly obscure, incomprehensible lyrics. The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians, which opens the opera, is sung by women dressed in black abayas who are joined later by men. It includes chants like “my father’s house was razed/ In 1948/ When the Israelis passed/ Over our streets... Israel laid all to waste...” and concludes with “Our faith/ Will take the stones he broke/ And break his teeth.” The fact that lyrics like these are repeated over and over throughout the opera puts a relatively benign face on the hijackers behavior — sweet, sensitive Omar is driven to kill Klinghoffer by the Israelis’ horrendous crimes. Like-what-youre-readingThe Palestinian’s Chorus is followed by The Chorus of Exiled Jews, which opens with “When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left, and of course no baggage.” But then Jews with suitcases — ostensibly Holocaust survivors arriving in Israel — do appear and sing, together with some that carry saplings. How their lyrics, such as the following, fit into this opera is puzzling: “I am an old woman, I thought you were dead. I have forgotten how often we betrayed one another,” and “Let us, when our lust is exhausted for the day, recount to each other all we endured since we parted.” Even when there is some reference to the return to Israel such as “There, under my hands the last wall of the Temple. There the forest planted in memory,” it is followed by “the movie house picketed by Hasidim...” In his September 7, 1991 review, New York Times music critic Edward Rothstein wrote, “The text seems almost casually random in its use of imagery and portentous statement... cryptic passages are chanted... references left unclear.” This description certainly fits the Jewish Chorus, but not the Palestinian Chorus, which is perfectly clear. This is equal time? Equal time would have given Israelis the opportunity to express how they feel about events such as the three wars waged against them by the Palestinians and their Arab brethren, or the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, or the rocket attacks, bombs, grenades, shootings that killed Israelis well before Klinghoffer was first performed in 1991. THESE KINDS OF QUESTIONS DO NOT OCCUR to art critic David Finkle, who wrote in his October 21, 2014 Huffington Post review: “There’s a prologue in which first a Palestinian chorus and then an Israeli Chorus intone their sorrows and hopes about existence in the... Promised land...” Sorry, David Finkle but it’s a Jewish Chorus. Israelis are not featured in this opera except in the sometimes tragic, sometimes angry rantings of the Palestinians! Well, there is one later scene, the Desert Chorus, which features people carrying saplings again and singing obscure lyrics about “rain falls on the earth... hunters shall go hungry tonight... the stars and moon are gone.” My guess is that they are supposed to be Israelis. Finkle goes on to say “since both elegies are sung by the same choristers, there’s an underlying conciliatory metaphor concerning people being the same no matter what their convictions and allegiances.” Wishful thinking on Finkle’s part, but certainly not what librettist Alice Goodman had in mind. In the original 1991 production, the Palestinian chorus was followed by a scene that introduced the Rumor family, Jewish friends of the Klinghoffer’s. In his 1991 review, Edward Rothstein described the scene as follows:
They are gathered on a couch and chair on a raised platform in midstage.... Mr. Rumor sits crankily with a television remote control in hand, squabbling with his missus over the tourist items she picks up every time they travel. She berates him for spending so much time on the toilet overseas, and also manages to suggest to her son that he check out Myrt Epstein’s daughters. The music burbles along like a theme song from a 1950’s television show, raising its voice along with the family’s. In the midst of this bourgeois fricasee, Mrs. Rumor spots an item in the newspaper about Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and is outraged.
This scene was so intensely criticized by many critics that composer John Adams removed it. What in the world was a caricature of American Jewish life doing in an opera about the murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists? Coming right after the Palestinian Chorus and serving as an introduction to the Jewish chorus, it could only serve to contrast the tragic, suffering, angry victims of the Israelis with the not very likable spoiled, materialistic, crude Jews. The 1991 scene makes it clear that Finkle’s “conciliatory metaphor” is not what the librettist had in mind. Imagine the reaction if an opera about the murder of an innocent American Muslim tourist by Israeli terrorists connected to Mossad included a portrayal of the victim’s friends, the Sharia family, discussing their 15-year-old daughter’s recent clitorectomy, in preparation for her impending marriage to the very observant Egyptian husband they found for her with the help of their imam — the daughter sits in a corner wiping her tears! Even if this scene were removed from the opera due to Muslim American’s vociferous complaints about Islamophobic stereotyping, wouldn’t it serve as evidence that the librettist is prejudiced against the victim? But even without the Rumor’s scene, the depiction of the Klinghoffers is mostly in keeping with negative stereotyping of American Jews. Perhaps “the curious imbalance” that Alex Ross points to in his otherwise very positive New Yorker review — “The Klinghoffers… do not sing until the second act and until then the Palestinians hold the stage” — is a good thing; less opportunity to stereotype the Klinghoffers! WHEN THE MURDER VICTIM first appears, he is given a kindly self description — “I’ve never been/ A violent man ... I came here with/My wife. We both/ Have tried to live/ Good lives ... We’re human. We are/ The kind of people/ You like to kill.” But besides this passage, which is followed by his lines about Palestinian terrorists, he and his wife Marilyn’s utterances are mostly about the mundane — “I should have worn my hat,” is the last thing he says before he is killed. When he comes back from the dead his speech is about “Good furniture/ Exposed to the rain/ Buckled and warped Malachite and brass.../ Locked bureau drawers... The souvenirs/ Which would be taken/ Fetched not a cent.” This is one of many incomprehensible and inappropriate “poetic” passages that seem to have no relation to the storyline. A man who has just been murdered has nothing to talk about but furniture? Several critics confess that they are baffled by such passages. Justin Davidson writes, “Following the story requires decoding metaphors on the fly.... What does the image of wrecked furniture with missing bits of malachite suggest?” Marilyn Klinghoffer complains a lot about her bodily pain: “I’ve got the worst/ Pain in my breast/ A stabbing pain/ And in my groin/ I don’t know what it is/ It’s like arthritis... Those replacement/ Joints they have today/ They’re miracles.” Even in her much-applauded final aria, sung when she finds out that her husband has been murdered and expressing her rage and sorrow ( according to some critics, this aria makes it clear whose side the opera is on), she complains about “all the pain/ Of hands, of feet, of skin/ Of the intestine.” Towards the end of the aria she sings, “I have only a short time.” That she has terminal cancer, however, is never mentioned in the opera. The real Marilyn Klinghoffer died four months after her husband was murdered. Then there is the money: After Klinghoffer has been murdered, Rambo searches his pockets and finds lots of it. Unlike Jews, Rambo is not materialistic, and does not keep it. He later sprinkles the bills over the heads of some of the hostages — “Look! Up in the air… They come from the pants/ Of an old man/ They’re not very clean.” (This scene brought back to mind the women I worked with when I was in college and had a summer job. They had no idea I was Jewish and commonly referred to a dollar bill as “a Jewish flag.”) I HAVE READ about a dozen reviews of the opera, and with a few exceptions, it feels like we haven’t seen the same opera. One of the exceptions is an October 22, 2014 Huffington Post blog by composer Glen Roven, who writes, “I was invited to the dress rehearsal and arrived with certain pre-conceived notions. One was that it was going to be much less controversial than the protestors were saying... I was in shock... it was incredibly pro-Palestinian.” About the terrorists, he writes, when they sing, “ ‘We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals’ it is clear that the opera is asking us to understand these men and sympathize.... Very powerful stuff. But very one-sided.” The best review I came across was by Jay Michaelson in the November 7, 2014 issue of the Forward. He starts out by pointing out that the opera “is wildly anti-Israel.... It’s more agitprop than art.... It romanticizes the hijackers.” He also brings to our attention several major factual flaws. Item 1: The hijackers are depicted as “generally pious Muslims. They talk about God all the time. In reality the Palestine Liberation Front was a Marxist-Leninist faction.” Item 2: “The women wear long black chadors [abayas to be precise]... But only a minority of Palestinians are fundamentalist Muslims.” Item 3: There is a flaw in the staging, which features Israel’s separation barrier, “which wasn’t constructed until twenty years after the Achille Lauro hijacking... It’s like putting the Berlin Wall in Cabaret.” I confess that while I am well aware that the wall — containing anti-Israel graffiti in the opera — was built in reaction to the second 2002 Intifada, and that the Palestine Liberation Front was not a Muslim fundamentalist organization, I only caught one of these errors — the Palestinian women wearing abayas. While Michaelson’s review is by far the more perceptive one, the October 31, 2014, very uncritical Forward review by Adam Langer contains an extremely revealing passage. It is well-known that after meeting with Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who expressed his concerns that the opera would encourage anti-Semitism, which was already on the rise in many European countries, Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, agreed to put aside plans for a video simulcast in movie theaters around the globe. Langer interviewed Gelb about this decision, and Gelb told him: “I don’t regret it. I thought it was the right thing to do.” Does this indicate that Peter Gelb has some sympathy for the people who protested the opera on the grounds that it would encourage anti-Semitism? It sure looks that way. Perhaps by the time he was interviewed by Langer, demonstrations in Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries in reaction to the Israel/Gaza conflict had made it clear to Gelb that while the more sophisticated and more sympathetic public might be able to distinguish between Israel and Diaspora Jews, a large part of the public does not. Otherwise why would German authorities have had to forbid demonstrators from repeating the slogan, “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” — a rhyming chant in German that had become increasingly common at pro-Palestinian rallies. Why was there an attempt to firebomb the synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany? Why did demonstrators attack a Paris synagogue while yelling anti-Semitic chants? Why were flyers calling for the boycott of forty Jewish stores distributed in Rome? Why were there chants of “Death to Jews” in a Brussels demonstration? Why did a Belgian physician refuse to treat a Jewish woman with a fractured rib and tell her to visit Gaza to get rid of the pain? And closer to home, why did a Mississippi coffee shop owner refuse to serve a rabbi? There’s even been a significant increase in anti-Semitic acts in Brooklyn, New York. All this is in reaction to Israel’s actions in Gaza. The fact that most diaspora Jews have never even set foot in Israel doesn’t seem to matter. Anti-Semitism is alive and well; it doesn’t take much to bring it to the fore. The last thing we need are works of art that do that. Dr. Myriam Miedzian (, a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues. She is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence.