The Klinghoffer Example

The Klinghoffer Example

ll the talk about The Death of Klinghoffer. Andrea Peyser at the New York Post just published this piece, stating, "The Met is to present an obscene opera titled 'The Death of Klinghoffer' — a musical celebration of the senseless murder by Palestinian monsters of a defenseless, elderly Jewish New Yorker." Sigh. Quick briefing: Klinghoffer is based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists; Leon Klinghoffer was a Jewish, wheelchair-bound passenger on the ship, and the anti-Semitic terrorists shot him and threw his body overboard. John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer was in the news earlier this year when Peter Gelb decided to cancel its HD broadcast (he ceded to claims of anti-Semitism, including from the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman, who even admitted he hadn't seen it.) Now, the piece is still set to hit the stage at the Met starting October 20th, and new protests are scheduled. Did you know that there's a Coalition Against Terror Opera (CATO)? I know, right? There's also COPMA, or Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art. Now, these organizations make me confused and amused at the same time, but they're loud and organized; "CATO believes that incontrovertible evidence exists in the libretto by Alice Goodman, and in remarks made by Gelb and the composer, John Adams, that the opera supports sympathy for terrorists and hatred for Jews and Israel." And COPMA's latest achievement seems to be this ad for the protest they're staging outside Lincoln Center on September 22nd (5pm, in case you're free).

With the odd mention about the opera being titled The Death of Klinghoffer (it should have been called The Murder of Klinghoffer, apparently), the opposition seems to centre on the so-called "Romanticism" of the terrorists, or sympathy for their actions. The characters who are supposed to be the villains get beautiful music to sing, and they are developed as humans, just like the "good guys". Says Andrea at the New York Post, "'The Death of Klinghoffer' has outraged some audiences. But it also has inspired hatred among people of all religions with its romantic portrayal of an act of violence committed by creatures who don’t deserve to breathe air." I have the sense that those who take offence to Klinghoffer do so because there isn't enough hate directed towards the Palestinians, and that's a frightening reason to boycott art. Robert Fink, in his incredible article on this subject, puts it perfectly: "[Adams' and Sellars'] original pride in the fact that ‘absolutely no sides were taken’ (Adams), that the sombre work strove to reach ‘a human level, beyond all political differences’ (Sellars), has hardened over the years into a firm conviction that they are being punished simply for their temerity in giving the Palestinians in their opera any voice at all."

It's a disturbing thought that such vocal masses of people don't see the hypocrisy in demanding their villains (or Palestinians, in this case) stay monstrous, without layers, black and white and unforgivable. Mark S. Golub on Shalom TV provides some of this eerie duplicity: "Artistic freedom does not permit you to glorify this kind of murder. Glorify. If it had been, you know, the Palestinians in this were really shown to be barbaric, who cares? But it's not what this opera is meant to do, and the very title of it is so telling." This is crass hypocrisy, the confusion of glorifying the behaviour versus the people doing it. Do people honestly think that some audience members come away from a performance of The Death of Klinghoffer thinking that Leon Klinghoffer got what he deserved?

It seems obvious to me that if someone wants to rally a bunch of people to do something like hijack a boat or kill a man because he's Jewish, you convince those people that what they're doing is for good, is right. And no matter what the cause, if there's a group of people banding together for what they think is right, you've got real human beings. Then again, if enemies were in the business of trying to understand each other, they'd less likely be enemies.

Tom Service at The Guardian said it well: "There’s no need to rehearse the arguments about the opera’s treatment of the passengers and terrorists on board the Achille Lauro in 1985: how the piece clearly voices the grief of Klinghoffer and his wife, and equally clearly, how it exposes the disastrously twisted world-view of the terrorists, while also acknowledging and voicing, in powerfully moving choruses, the feelings of communities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

And I get the feeling that the ADL isn't the only one who didn't bother to see _Klinghoffer _before defaming it publicly. You don't even have to dig far into thelibretto before you'll find a damning line sung by Mamoud, one of the fictional terrorists: "The day that I and my enemy sit peacefully, each putting his case and working towards peace, that day our hope dies and I shall die too." Pretty darn evil, considering that Klinghoffer was accused of being too easy on the Palestinian terrorists.

This fight isn't new, not for Klinghoffer and not for theatre. You could remind anti-Klinghoffers about artistic freedom, or how "being offended" doesn't necessarily warrant any action at all. Appropriately, I'm reminded of something Peter Sellars said about Greek theatre; he talked about how the tragedies were meant to give a voice to those who didn't get one in the "real world", like women and foreigners (Sophocles' The Women of Trachis and Oedipus Rex). It's historically ignorant to try and control how a particular group of people should be portrayed in theatre, especially since it's a function of art to challenge societal norms. The protests at Lincoln Center will happen, people will call it "offensive" and "obscene", and I hope they'll get remembered alongside the riots at The Rite of Spring and Carmen. It's a dangerous thing, protesting against opinions that oppose yours, when history will keep racking up examples of the times those protests didn't work. If I were Peter Gelb, I'd extend an invitation to some of the rehearsals so the protesters can actually see the opera. I suppose that would be a start.

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Written by

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna is the editor and co-creator of Schmopera.com. She's also a pianist, vocal coach, and répétiteur, and working with singers is how she fell in love with opera. Her favourite operas include Peter Grimes, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tristan und Isolde, Written on Skin, and Anna Nicole.

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