One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, The Death of Klinghoffer, debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators – including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders – came to Lincoln Centre to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera.
Klinghoffer, the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premièred in 1991, with few additional stagings. The opera is based on the 1985 murder of a 69-year-old American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, on an Italian cruise ship. Klinghoffer, confined to a wheelchair, was shot in the head by Palestinian Arab terrorists who had hijacked the ship. They dumped his body into the Mediterranean Sea.
The opera repeatedly defames Jews and Israelis as representatives of religious/ethnic or national groups. Nowhere does it similarly criticize Arabs/Muslims as a group. The Met’s intransigent insistence that Klinghoffer must be staged has become an organizational calamity.
Adams and Goodman make up an aptly matched pair. Their Jewish problem seems to include an obsession with what they imagine to be Jewish guilt. This should not be surprising on the part of Goodman, perhaps, since, during the writing of Klinghoffer, she rejected her American Jewish heritage and joined the Anglican Church. The church’s leadership has been known in recent years for its hostility toward Israel. Goodman is now a parish priest in England.
But is Klinghoffer the only Adams/Goodman opera that contains elements of antiemitism, including the stereotypical notion of Jewish guilt?
Consider the Adams/Goodman opera Nixon in China (world première 1987, Met première 2011). It offered relatively humane depictions of President Richard M. Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong – a mass murderer on the scale of a Hitler or Stalin – but not a similarly sympathetic picture of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jew. In a 1988 review of the opera, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page wrote that Kissinger is depicted as “a venal, jabbering, opportunistic buffoon.” Others remarked that Kissinger is portrayed as cruel and cunning.
A bizarre, memorable scene involving Kissinger occurs in the second act. In a propagandistic ballet staged by Madame Mao for the Nixon entourage, First Lady Pat Nixon thinks she sees Kissinger playing an evil landlord savagely whipping a poor village girl. Not seeing Kissinger in the audience or at the Nixon family table, Mrs. Nixon points to the landlord while whispering to her husband, “Doesn’t that look like you-know-who?” Indeed, the singer who plays the role of Kissinger also plays the role of the evil landlord.
Then there is the Adams opera Doctor Atomic (world première 2005, Met première 2008). Its storyline centres on Jewish American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, often called the “father of the atomic bomb” for leading the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. The project developed the nuclear weapons that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 100,000 people and causing Japan to surrender to the United States, thus ending the war earlier than would have otherwise been the case. The earlier end potentially saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other lives on both sides.
Adams and librettists Goodman and Peter Sellars depict Oppenheimer as consumed with guilt and torn with remorse. Did they exaggerate here? According to a 1967 New York Times report, Oppenheimer was “beset by the moral consequences of the bomb, which, he told fellow physicists, had ‘dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war’ … [but] in later years, he seemed to indicate that the ‘sin’ was not to be taken personally. ‘I carry no weight on my conscience,’ he said in 1961 in reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Defenders of The Death of Klinghoffer seem either unaware or unconcerned about any of the several instances of the opera’s anti-Jewish and inflammatory lyrics. Some of these were cited by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America in an open letter to Met general manager Peter Gelb on May 29, 2014. The letter helped spark initial protests against staging Klinghoffer and resulted in the cancellation of a Nov. 15 large-screen simulcast of the opera that would have been viewed live by hundreds of thousands of people in theaters in 70 countries.
Klinghoffer defenders treat the libretto – the text sung and spoken in the opera – as proving nothing. Instead, they seem to either misunderstand, or misuse as camouflage, the concept of “artistic freedom.” It is possible to defend Klinghoffer on artistic grounds, but the art involved is the low variety of the propagandist, not the high art of worthwhile opera. The defenders act as if neither the libretto nor the music matters much. In fact, while the lyrics recycle some of the worst antisemitic canards, the music is mediocre and unremarkable except for the propagandistic way it is used by Adams to underscore words of the Palestinian hijackers. This was pointed out by eminent American musicologist Richard Taruskin in a December 2001 New York Times article strongly condemning the Adams opera, headlined “Music’s dangers and the case for control.”
The Death of Klinghoffer is a vehicle for tendentious reiteration of antisemitic and anti-Zionist slurs. But this opera, when considered together with the other two Adams/Goodman opera collaborations mentioned here, represents something more – a prejudicial obsession with Jews.
Myron Kaplan is a senior research analyst for the Boston-based, 65,000-member Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. This article was originally published by jns.org.