Even if you’re not a fan of opera, you may have heard about the worldwide dust-up over the recent staging by the New York Metropolitan Opera of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams, an eminent American composer. (The opera closed Nov. 15.)
The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of a Mediterranean cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, by Palestinian terrorists demanding the release of their allies from Israeli jails. Tragically, one of the passengers, a retired Jewish American named Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered and tossed overboard, along with his wheelchair.
Since its debut in 1991, the opera has aroused condemnation by some who claim that the opera merely glorifies antisemitism and Palestinian terrorism. On Oct. 20, a few hundred people protested outside the Met, led by politicians such as Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor. One Jewish leader spoke of protesting “until the set is burned to the ground.” Under censorship pressure, performances of The Death of Klinghoffer have been relatively rare since 1991, and the Met decided to cancel its usual cinecast to movie theatres.
The Klinghoffers’ daughters continue to condemn the opera, as they believe it “rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father…. Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood.”
What’s the cause of the condemnation? The opera begins with a chorus of exiled Palestinians that acknowledges the forcible eviction of Palestinian Arabs in 1948: “Of that house not a wall was left to stand / Israel laid all to waste.” (This is followed, though, by a chorus of exiled Jews, which acknowledges Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, and the great sense of hope accompanying a return to the Holy Land.) Later, one of the hijackers briefly mouths antisemitic comments about Jews getting fat off poor people, and criticizes both British and American society: “America is one big Jew.”
However, Adams’ opera (with a libretto by Alice Goodman, who was raised a Reform Jew) has been widely hailed as a fine work of art. For example, on Oct. 21, Anthony Tommasini, the respected New York Times music reviewer, called Adams’ opera “a searching, spiritual and humane work.”
… those who consider this opera as an opinion-editorial or a speech are missing the point of a work of art that has despair, solitude and love at its core….
I am in sympathy with Tommasini. I’ve carefully watched the London Symphony Orchestra production on DVD, winner of the Prix Italia, and found the opera to be powerful, spiritual, lyric – and not a screed against Jews or Israel. There’s an attempt at balance in recalling the background of the conflict that on the whole succeeds, and a rather profound exploration of the roots of a common sense of exile, despair and misery in the Mideast. Adams himself has noted that the “situation … is much too complex to fall into one easy answer or another.” In any case, those who consider this opera as an opinion-editorial or a speech are missing the point of a work of art that has despair, solitude and love at its core – like most operas, “a song of love and death,” in the words of Peter Conrad, an opera scholar.
It seems to me there are three key points, above and beyond the obvious one that censorship of art is virtually always wrong, and is a familiar tactic of totalitarian states.
First, the opera does not romanticize or legitimize the hijackers. While there are some fleeting complexities attributed to one or two of them, which is to the credit of the work, they are portrayed as brutal, hysterical thugs on the boat – “punks” as Mrs. Klinghoffer calls them. When the ship’s captain suggests to the most articulate hijacker that he speak to his enemies of his misery, the hijacker demurs and posits death as the only outcome. Palestinian activists assault and pour acid on the face of a young Arab woman who is deemed too Western.
Certainly, the boat’s bystanders are not the mortal core. One Swiss grandmother with her grandson in tow comments with satisfaction, “At least we are not Jews.”
Actually, the moral core of the opera – the heroes, if one can use that term – is the Klinghoffers. Leon delivers a brave, outspoken speech against terrorism to one of the hijackers, condemning those who would throw gasoline around a loaded bus and burn it. His wife’s eloquent lament that ends the opera is a tribute to the love and resistance to evil of ordinary people.
Second, as with other art works, the portrayal of a character’s attitudes, declarations or motivations is not an endorsement of these. In Ulysses by James Joyce, for example, a repugnant Irish nationalist is given outrageous lines against Jews, but Joyce obviously meant these words to express his disgust with such bigotry. Joyce’s Jew Leopold Bloom rather abashedly follows with his condemnation of hate and injustice.
Third, the idea that “terrorism … cannot be understood” leaves me uneasy. For example, to analyze and to understand Nazism is not to condone or accept it. Our understanding of bigotry and evil has come a long way since the early 1960s with the thousands of works by scholars on Nazism and the Holocaust. In the words of two Holocaust scholars, “We must look into the abyss to look beyond it” (Robert Lifton); “Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving” (Christopher Browning). If people come away from the opera with insights into what Adams calls the complexities, all the better.
In the end, the opera shows us that in a sense we are all in the same boat, whether it be the Achille Lauro or a larger craft. We share a pervasive sense of isolation, exile and despair that perhaps can be mitigated by the humble love of which Mrs. Klinghoffer sings.
Goodman’s libretto includes the point that “Islamic fundamentalism flourishes in a climate of despair.” She has the captain of the ship observe the “comprehensive solitude” of the characters on the boat. “Evil grows exponentially…. Violence speaks a single long sentence inflicted and endured in hell by those who have despaired.” Given the two solitudes, sadly, there’s more than enough despair to go around among the many peoples of the Middle East.
Gene Homel teaches liberal studies at the B.C. Institute of Technology, including a course on the Holocaust. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, and has published numerous articles on history, politics and culture.