The Trouble With Klinghoffer Isn’t Quite What You Think

By
The Death of Klinghoffer Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

This piece originally ran on Sept. 21, 2014. Last night, The Death of Klinghoffer opened at the Met and was met, as predicted with protesters outside the auditorium — including former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani — and hecklers inside. Justin Davidson will have a full review of the opera later today.

Will an opera about terrorists ever not be timely? Can The Death of Klinghoffer ever stop incandescing? John Adams’s work had its premiere in 1991, when the events it was based on — the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer — were still raw memories. In the years that followed, occasional new productions and weekly bursts of lethal fanaticism kept reactivating the arguments about the opera. Now that it’s finally coming to the Metropolitan Opera, Palestinian hijackers seem almost to belong to another era, before 9/11, before Iraq and Afghanistan, before anti-Jewish riots in Paris, before drone strikes, Iron Dome, and YouTube beheadings. Through all of that, Klinghoffer hasn’t lost its sting.

“This anti-Semitic opera viciously falsifies history to malign and incite hatred against Israel and the Jewish people,” the Zionist Organization of America recently declared. “The opera is a disgrace and should be canceled immediately.” That’s not going to happen, but, under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League, the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, did cancel planned broadcasts to movie theaters worldwide. The Guggenheim Museum scrapped a “Works & Process” performance of excerpts from the opera, citing a scheduling conflict. And audiences arriving at Lincoln Center for the opera’s Met premiere on October 20 will likely have to run a gauntlet of protesters.

I will be in the house with my mixed feelings, not out on the street nursing an ill-­informed certainty. I am eager to hear David Robertson conduct Adams’s very fine score, and to see whether Tom Morris’s staging can vanquish some serious dramatic flaws. I find Klinghoffer sporadically splendid, historically dubious, and politically troubling. I’m fine with that: Operagoers must be able to hold contradictory thoughts in their heads, because why else would they pay so much to complain with such addictive passion?

I don’t believe that this imperfect opera denigrates Jews, incites hatred, endorses libels, or casts collective blame. It doesn’t glorify terrorists or justify their crimes. What it does do is embed a spasm of thuggish violence in a broad historical context, a job that Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and the original production’s director and all-around inspiration man, Peter Sellars, have fumbled badly. The opera’s problem is not that it proffers an anti-Semitic agenda, but that it drifts for far too long, indulging too many narrators and avoiding a point of view. The (mostly) fictionalized characters are chips floating on a torrent of events, carried toward destiny with no agency of their own. Only halfway through does the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer emerge as the opera’s moral core, the one fully functioning human being. But then, of course, he’s killed. The creative team bridled at the dismissive term “CNN opera,” and in fact The Death of Klinghoffer more closely resembles the Nightline of the ’80s, the granddaddy of the moderated shout-down show. Evenhandedness in journalism can be a virtue; in opera, it’s such a colossal cop-out that audiences have trouble even recognizing its existence.

The opera has cast a resentful spell on its creators. Adams has spent years defending the thing. Goodman, who walked away from her Jewish upbringing halfway through writing the libretto to become a rector in the Anglican Church, complained that the project finished her opera career. “I couldn’t get work after Klinghoffer,she told the Guardian in 2012. “I was uncommissionable.” Perhaps they just got into the spirit of victimology that permeates the Middle East, but an opera that’s ostensibly about understanding has bred bullheadedness all around. Penny Woolcock, who directed a powerfully realistic TV version for the BBC, expressed her surprise at accusations that had, at that point, been dogging the opera for more than a decade. “I find it kind of astounding that anyone would interpret it like that,” she told the Times. “And I would never have filmed it if I thought it was anti-Semitic. If the opera is about anything, it’s that we have to forgive the unforgivable. Otherwise, we’re lost as a species.”

One way to start the forgiveness cycle and rescue humanity might be to try empathizing with those who find the work upsetting, including, for example, Klinghoffer’s daughters. Actually, what’s astounding is that a group of right-thinking artists should turn a real-life episode of unthinking rage and appalling cruelty into a volatile work of art — and then sputter in disbelief when it triggers powerful reactions. Whether ­Adams & Co. like it or not, it is a shocking experience to hear a terrorist sing: ­“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, and break your own law with idolatry.” On the other hand, if you’re going to put Palestinian terrorists onstage, these are the sorts of sentiments they are going to express.

In an interview for The John Adams Reader, a collection of essays edited by Thomas May, Sellars declared the music drama superior to journalism as a way of grasping current events, because it deals with motivation. “Opera is able to go inside to a place where the headlines aren’t going,” he said. “Whether it’s about suicide bombers or 9/11 or any of these events that have happened to America, the question that is not allowed to be asked to this day is ‘Why would people do this?’ That’s the question, of course, that drama asks.” Leaving aside the fact that reporters risk their lives and die on a regular basis to ask exactly that question, and often return with plausible answers, Sellars’s statement demands that we at least try to take Klinghoffer seriously as history. Okay, here goes.

In the opening choruses, each side gets a chance to state its case. Above a gently pulsing F-minor chord that glistens with passing dissonances, the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” recalls: “My father’s house was razed / In 1948 / When the Israelis passed / Over our street.” Within 30 seconds of the first downbeat, Adams and Goodman have already called down the ire of fact-checkers, who would point out that in 1948, it was the Arab nations that created a population of refugees by attacking Israel and starting a war. This is not a chorus of historians, however; it is the statement of a creation myth, sung by its inheritors.

The “Chorus of Exiled Jews” follows, with more lugubrious minor-mode pulsations, more plangent harmonies and muffled strings. The symmetry is infuriating, suggesting that Shoah (the Holocaust) and ­Nakba (the Palestinian exodus) are equivalent calamities — that the Jews were victims of the first and perpetrators of the second, their suffering canceled by their sins. This is tendentious stuff, but is it anti-Semitic? In The New Yorker last year, the Israeli writer Ari Shavit, too, saw the dispossessed Palestinians of 1948 as heirs to the Jewish legacy of persecution: “[Brigade commander] Mula Cohen, standing by his command car, also watched the people of Lydda depart, carrying on their backs heavy sacks made of blankets and sheets. Gradually, they cast aside the sacks; they couldn’t carry them any farther. Old men and women, suffering from terrible thirst in the heavy heat, collapsed. Like the ancient Jews, the people of Lydda went into exile.”

In its attempt to explain the bloodshed on the deck of the Achille Lauro, the opera reaches even further back, rewinding to the biblical stories of Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael, the juncture where Jews split off from the people who would many centuries later become Muslims. As news analysis, this hardly improves on the sound-bite-­peddling experts who perform their shticks on cable. Sellars is wrong: Explaining historical events is not an opera’s job, and never has been. The art form brims with inexplicable revolutions and preposterously fictionalized intrigue folded into rich and marvelous dramas. What matters is how vast events frame a human drama, translated into musical form. Don Carlo, for instance, is not about the Inquisition or a Flemish uprising, but about the relationship between a powerful father and a frustrated son.

Adams might have modeled this most political of operas on stirring Russian epics or Verdi rabble-rousers; instead he drew on Bach’s Passions, ritualistic settings of a religious tale that ends with an execution. In a famously prosecutorial Times article from 2001, the musicologist Richard Taruskin accused the composer of using the form as a front for pro-Palestinian propaganda. “In the St. Matthew Passion,” Taruskin pointed out, “Bach accompanies the words of Jesus with an aureole of violins and violas that sets him off as numinous, the way a halo would do in a painting. There is a comparable effect in Klinghoffer: long, quiet, drawn-out tones in the highest violin register … accompany virtually all the utterances of the choral Palestinians or the terrorists.” Taruskin is a formidable scholar who can pry succulent meaning from a two-note motif. Here, though, his interpretation is downright perverse, because he listens selectively and mistakes convention for content. If there is one character in Adams’s opera who expresses love and rage and doubt and sorrow in the space of a few ravishing measures, who is physically weak and morally strong, who pays with his life for the sins of others and is eloquent even after death, that person is Klinghoffer himself. The plush “aureole” of strings swaddles the aria that his dead body sings after it has been pushed overboard, sanctifying his memories of a house ravaged by war and weather. This moment of beauty, this shining crux, might actually be the most offensive thing about the opera, since a Jewish murder victim is conscripted to serve as a Christian symbol of redemption.

Other critics, too, have suggested that, in his zeal to elevate a crime into an allegory, Adams treats the four terrorists as a single unit, an ensemble of noble creatures who lend the opera their point of view and whose music is threaded together by a common, elevated sound. This is simply not true.

We hear first from Molqi during the initial takeover, barking orders in choppy phrases while strings hack brutally at fragmentary, jagged motifs. He controls the situation, and the score, for barely a minute before pandemonium takes over. A passenger howls, the brass blares in fortissimo panic, and the orchestra breaks out into deafening tremors. Molqi takes advantage of a moment of terrified quiet to utter the lines that have provoked so much anti-Klinghoffer ire: “We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals.” The PR-driven conflict in the Middle East is partly a war of terminology. What Molqi calls men of ideals, we would call fanatics; he says soldiers, we say terrorists. In the opera, nobody pays much attention to his declaration, and the spotlight quickly passes to the Swiss Grandmother, who’s trying to lull a little boy into believing that the whole scene is a marvelous escapade.

The terrorists talk very little among themselves. They are always hectoring, cajoling, persuading, or threatening, so we see them through the other characters’ responses. Molqi is obsessed with getting a reaction — from America, Syria, or the PLO — and the hectic jumbles of dissonances and agitated percussion express his frustration with the silence on the other end of the radio. It is he who shoots Klinghoffer in the head, and the violin’s high, drawn-out tone, which is abruptly snuffed out, signals not “numinous” nobility but the horrific suspension of time on the threshold between life and inflicted death. Bach has been banished from this passage; instead we’ve wandered into the murder scene from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck: the same spasm of ruthless madness, same wild percussion and clanging harmonies, same high, creepy violins. Adams and Berg both provide context for their characters’ lethal rages, and it has nothing to do with ideals. Molqi and Wozzeck are both the children of sick societies, and the only remedy they know is to lash out.

Effective propaganda strives to convince; in The Death of Klinghoffer, all attempts at persuasion are futile. The creators don’t just field two teams, but a collection of characters who inhabit separate worlds and sing past each other, unable to listen or learn. Molqi and the Swiss Grandmother shout past each other, the hijacker called Rambo swaps jeers and lectures with Klinghoffer, and the captain tries to save his passengers by drawing the pensive terrorist Mamoud into conversation. Nothing works, which is what makes it a tragedy.

Taruskin and others have focused on Mamoud’s nocturnal aria on the bridge. Musing and philosophical, he turns the short-wave dial and reflects on the songs that go scudding above the waves. The vocal line is warm and pliant, the orchestra a surface as phosphorescent as the sea. He unburdens himself to the captain: his suffering mother, his dead brother, the refugee camps. Touched, the captain responds in the same intimate murmur: “I think if you could talk like this sitting among your enemies, peace would come.” The terrorist’s aria, its tenderness and sophistication, raises the captain’s hope that Mamoud understands the sanctity of life, even though he has said he welcomes death. But it’s a bluff. Mamoud snaps that a negotiated peace would kill both him and hope. Then this terrorist, who only moments before was beguiling the captain with his soft, sung words, negates the possibility of talk with an Old Testament reference: “My speech is slow and rough,” he says. “Esau cannot argue.” Which is to say: He can, but he’d rather kill.

When the opera first opened, in 1991, many critics winced at the rhetorical and musical imbalance between the Palestinians, who delivered orotund abstractions, and the Jews, who chattered about trivia. It seemed as though Adams and Goodman were setting up a contest between freedom fighters and bourgeois materialists. (Most of the discussion focused on a scene in a New Jersey living room that has since been deleted and that I never saw.) But Newsday’s critic Peter Goodman pointed out that the differences mirrored the way each group saw itself: the Jews as unassuming but complicated people, appreciative of everyday pleasures and close, if fractious, families; the Palestinians as fearsome actors on a historical stage. “Are we to see the opera’s Jews — and by extension, all Americans — as wrong just because they bicker over trivialities?” Goodman asked. “Are Palestinians to be considered right because they are single-mindedly seeking revenge?” The opera captures the disjunction that has become depressingly familiar but no less horrifying in the 30 years since the Achille Lauro hijacking, the clash of the death wish with the cultivation of a peaceable life. There are grounds for disliking the opera, including its view of history, but to claim that it pits noble terrorists against nattering Jews is to listen with one ear closed.

The opera’s pivotal confrontation between humanism and barbarity comes roughly halfway through. When we finally hear from the title character, it’s in the form of a righteous lecture. “I’ve never been a violent man … but somebody’s got to tell you the truth,” Klinghoffer sings to the impetuous goon Rambo. The orchestra insists that we believe him. Timpani hammer out a series of falling octaves, triggering a solemn brass chorale and a cascade of running pizzicati. The mixture of march and flow, of plucked notes and sustained tones, and the tolling of open fifths give the aria its urgent nobility. “We’re human. We are the kind of people you like to kill” — these lines are a brave reproach from an ordinary man in mortal danger, with no weapon but his moral compass. The aria unnerves his tormentor, who spits out hate-filled clichés in jerky rhythms, while a spatter of plucked dissonances and jittery percussion illustrates his state of mind. Rambo is a caricature, a genuine opera villain. A synthesizer whines nasally like a noodling kazoo. He is not even lucid enough to be a fanatic. A disembodied choir, presumably inside his head, echoes his words (“Kneel! Beg!”) in syncopated interjections, muddying his speech into a psychotic soliloquy. When he’s done, and the synth’s obstinate loop runs out of juice, Klinghoffer is still there, still sane, still human. He uses the minutes he has left to console his wife in a few lilting phrases, gentle as a lullaby. The Palestinians boarded the ship proclaiming the glory of martyrdom, yet they wind up shuffling toward ignominious arrest, while the Jew from New Jersey, Leon Klinghoffer, meets the fate they claimed to want for themselves. As I listen to the final chord shimmering into silence, I wonder at the fresh waves of fury the score created, and whether the various factions will have any more success communicating than their armed counterparts fighting over biblical lands.    

*This article appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.