The End of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

The End of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

The opera opens: “My father’s house was razed in 1948/when the Israelis passed over our street/the house was built of stone/with a courtyard inside.”  This is the “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” from John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer.  (It is followed by the “Chorus of Exiled Jews,” stateless Holocaust survivors making their way to Palestine.)

The Metropolitan Opera had announced earlier in the year that it would be mounting a new production of “The Death of Klinghoffer” and including the opera in its popular series of “Live in HD” broadcasts streamed live to movie theaters worldwide.  In a singular act of cowardice, Met general manager Peter Gelb announcedafter a meeting with Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxmanthat because of fears that the production will stir up anti-Semitism in Europe (and not in the US?), the production will still be staged but not broadcast, neither in the “Live in HD” series nor in the traditional Saturday afternoon radio programs.

I am shocked and mystified by this decision. First, “The Death of Klinghoffer” has been surrounded by miasmas of controversy since its premiere  in 1991.  If you don’t want contention and protests, and if you don’t want to wade waist-deep into the endless morass of Israel and Palestine, you should stick to La Boheme and Carmen.   And  second, when those protests came, in the form of complaints from the ADL that the opera is anti-Semitic, the Met promptly folded, but in the most annoying way possible: staging the opera for its New York City audience, presumably sophisticated enough to tell the difference between faux anti-Semitism and the genuine article, while depriving us yokels in the boonies of the right to see the production ourselves and make our own judgments. I am a passionate opera-goer, and love the “Live in HD broadcasts.” Since they started  in 2006,  I have rarely missed one. I was really looking forward to seeing “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera that I, and most opera-goers have never seen, largely because it has been so rarely produced.
“The Death of Klinghoffer”  is one of three topical operas John Adams wrote in the 1980s and early 1990s.  “Nixon in China” is based on, well, Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.  “Doctor Atomic” tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.   These are controversial topics, but I don’t know if Adams and his creative team, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman quite knew what they were getting themselves into when the embarked on opera-izing the Israel-Palestine conflict.  For starters, there is absolutely no neutral position, no facts that are agreed upon by all sides, no common ground to stand upon.  Adams no doubt thought the opera was emphasizing the “two narratives” approach to the conflict; two irreconcilable stories, two rights, the meat and potatoes of classic tragedy.  (Another modern master, Steve Reich, has taken a similar approach in his multi-media opera, “The Cave” with Jewish and Palestinian voices telling the story of the Cave of Macpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs.)

This is fine, for me,  but it leads to a balancing that inevitably some will find faulty. Is the opera making the case for “moral equivalence,” of equating Palestinian terrorism with Jewish suffering? Or does the opera identify the Palestinian cause with that of terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians?  Should the memory of Leon Klinghoffer, ruthlessly murdered by thugs simply because he was Jewish, have been allowed to rest in peace, rather than be made the basis of a morality play?  Does the operain its music, libretto, or stagingsubtly favor one side or another; are the terrorists portrayed too nobly, are the Klinghoffers depicted too unattractively, too much like typical, clueless, ugly American tourists?  I don’t know, but as someone who has had a relative killed by a Palestinian terrorist, I must say that having a terrorist spout off on the sufferings of his people makes me a little queasy.  One of the penalties for murdering innocent people in cold blood should be, it seems to me, losing the ability to lecture others on how you have suffered. On the other hand, by giving a terrorist the central Palestinian role in the role, rather than an “innocent” Palestinian, Adams has directly engaged the actual way the conflict has been fought for decades; less a matter of arguing about rights, than fighting, figuratively and actually, over charges of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and counter-counter-terrorism. 

In the end, I don’t have the answers to these questions.  What I know is that “The Death of Klinghoffer” is a great opera, moody, oratorio-like in its powerful choruses, with deliberate echoes of Bach’s passions.  Is it dramatically fair to both sides?  Does it over-simplify the underlying history? Can art bring new and unexpected perspectives on old, over-familiar controversies?   I don’t know.  I just wish the Metropolitan Opera would have trusted my ability to judge “The Death of Klinghoffer” myself, and reach my own conclusions.

When it comes to any discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,  I rarely find myself in entire agreement with anyone’s  views or presentation—there are too many nuances, too many potential pitfalls, too many necessary “on the one hand, and on the other hands” to make this possible.  And I am sure, if the Metropolitan Opera would have trusted my ability to judge “The Death of Klinghoffer” there would have been things about it that I liked, and things I disagreed with. Many people, coming from their different perspectives, would have felt the same way. I don’t think in the end, that it would have done much, one way or another to increase or decrease anti-Semitism in Europe or America to broadcast “The Death of Klinghoffer.”  Perhaps it could have served as a useful vehicle for discussion.  Perhaps not. But the Met, by allowing political pressure to kill a broadcast of an opera about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has shown us all how not to approach this interminable and endlessly controversial topic, by trying to run away from it and pretending it doesn’t exist.   

By | 2014-06-20T16:17:00-04:00 June 20th, 2014|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Anonymous June 26, 2014 at 4:16 am - Reply

    Once the video is over, one can serendipitously click to others: I got the scene of the joyful passengers, including the namesake + the terrorists, boarding the ill-fated ship in Genoa, hometown of the likely Marrano, Columbus.
    After Klinghoffer’s murder, the rest of the passengers were freed by the Egyptians
    west of the biblical Reed Sea.

    To expect heroics from the Met? Seriously. The reason its late, younger sibling was created was Jews were excluded from its board. Ironically, the company LaGuardia dubbed “the people’s opera,”
    became dependent a true enemy of demos, David Koch. In another ironic twist, the City Opera’s last production on returning to its original home, The City Center, was “Moses in Egypt.”

    Why this libretto, when 2 contiguous – 1 of which borders on Israel – are collapsing & monsters are adeptly filling the void.

    Al-Monitor reports that Jordan’s King Abdullah has made visits to the Chechen head to discuss the involvement of Chechens in Isis. Jordan is home to
    part of this Caucasian people’s diaspora & he is clearly worried about the impact inside & along the Hashemite kingdom’s very long borders where an ISIS – so unlike the Egyptian goddess – has swept into control. Our cousins would appear to have orchestrated their own Palmach.

    So, with which ship of state does Jordan share a liquid boundary? The siren call off Columbus Ave
    is not worth a moment’s attention.

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