On Monday, New York's Metropolitan Opera went ahead with its production of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer. The evening was met with protests from various conservative organizations outside and jeers from some audience members inside who denounced the opera and called for it to be banned from the stage, declaring that the work is a glorification of terrorism and a tool of anti-Semitism. The opera is a dramatic retelling of the 1985 killing of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American businessman aboard the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) in the Mediterranean Sea. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), recently insinuated that the opera would inspire extremists across the world to commit hateful acts. In the midst of a serious funding crisis, the Met bowed to pressure from the ADL and several major donors earlier this year and said they would refrain from simulcasting high-definition performances of the opera in theaters across the world. A dissenting statement composed by Klinghoffer's daughters Lisa and Ilsa is also included in the playbill that accompanies performances.
Monday's protestors outside the Met included Congressional representative and noted Islamophobe Peter King, former New York state governor George Pataki, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, roused from political retirement and cheered on with a bizarre chorus of "four more years!" Giuliani is a self-proclaimed opera buff—he once presented Plácido Domingo with a key to the city—and no stranger to public controversy involving free expression and censorship. The former mayor intervened in 1999 to condemn the Brooklyn Museum of Art's exhibition of Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, a mixed-media painting which incorporates pornographic imagery and ironizes Eurocentric depictions of the Madonna with elephant dung. Giuliani was in opposition to the public subsidizing of what he and the Catholic diocese deemed unsavory and sacriligious art. Giuliani presided over the city during a rampant upswing of gentrification that diminished small, community-oriented, and countercultural art spaces in the 1990s with rejuvenated enforcement of Cabaret Laws and "quality of life" policing. The former mayor seems to acknowledge the importance of art in New York, but only if it's contained in sanitized institutional spaces and in sync with his standards of appropriateness. And so Giuliani sprung into action when it appeared that the sanctified Met would push forward with the opera and was quoted in the NY Times as saying that the Klinghoffer libretto, written by Alice Goodman, represents a "distortion of history" and, most problematically in his view, "humanizes" Klinghoffer's killers. This complex rendering of the hijackers is the opera's main strength. It is laudable, I suppose, that Giuliani has actually familiarized himself with the libretto, unlike most of the surrounding protestors who decried the opera's context while utterly oblivious to its content. You can read the full libretto here.
Klinghoffer joins a small list of highly politicized, late 20th century vocal works, including Adams's own Nixon in China, the radical AIDS response Plague Mass realized by avant-gardist Diamanda Galás and criticized by the Catholic Church, Anthony Davis's X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, and Arvo Pärt's Credo whose religiosity incensed Soviet authorities in the composer's native Estonia. Klinghoffer's American premier at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991 wasn't greeted with the fierce condemnation on national display this week. Over the years, the profile of the opera has grown, as an example of an artistic work that engages with the political and very human circumstances that foster extremism, and as a convenient cultural target for the scorn of the Israel lobby in the US, especially in the wake of the recent Gaza offensive and the global public relations frenzy that followed. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, librettist Alice Goodman shared her thoughts on the opera's "romanticism" that critics frequently deride:
But the trouble is they think romanticism is good. Romanticism good, romanticism attractive. I don't think that. I actually think the most dangerous thing in the world is romantic nationalism. Not religion, but romantic nationalism. And if it's true, it's also true for Israel. Israel is not exempt from the problem I have with romantic nationalism. If it's an evil, it's an evil all over the world.
Goodman also took issue with New York Times critic Richard Taruskin's complaint that too much musical beauty is afforded to scenes involving Klinghoffer's captors. It is exactly this kind of compositional turn—the break with what Goodman describes as the "ugly" music expected to accompany terrorists—that makes Adams so transgressive and brings the heinous nature of the hijacking clearly into focus. Open artistic interrogation of political struggles, their histories, and the violence they foment should not be confused with justification for terrorism. The accusation that works which avoid myopic narratives of "good" and "bad" somehow play into the hands of terrorists is one that lacks integrity. There is a big disconnect when some will object to a dramatic production but not to the real-world geopolitics and militarism that foreground the murderous drive and "ideals" which Klinghoffer's fictional captors display. The "exiled choruses" at the beginning of the opera present a sympathetic portrayal of both Jewish and Palestinian struggle without obscuring the political realities that protestors find so disturbing. The first line of the libretto is: My father's house was razed / In 1948 / When the Israelis passed / Over our street. It is the portrayal of the Palestinians in the libretto that sometimes misses the mark. With all of the references to Islam and the drive to be martyred, the hijackers are more akin to Hamas than the nationalist PLF circa 1985. The factional politics that affected Palestine in the 1980s seem to be completely glossed over in favor of a Samuel P. Huntington style "clash of the civilizations." Leon Klinghoffer isn't a silent victim, and he openly confronts the hijackers before his execution. His aggrieved wife Marilyn is given the final word in the libretto. The Klinghoffer family is represented in the opera as a symbol of tourist frivolty and, according to a friend of mine who was present in the house amid the jeering, far from the kind of caricatures that would, as protestors insist, perpetuate a tradition of anti-Semitism. When was the last time militants looked toward the rigid confines of the classical music world to find their battle cry?
The likelihood of opera—an increasingly stale art form reliant on Western canons of music and hierarchies of taste that play to notions of "high art" and prestige—radicalizing or giving life to terrorist straw men is pretty slim. Next to masterworks like Nixon in China, the score of Klinghoffer seems fairly mediocre. I came to feel this way after watching Penny Woolcock's film adaptation. Despite the recognition stemming from the libretto and the recent controversy, it's not one of Adams's stronger musical works. My friend and informant in attendance at Monday's performance expressed his disappointment that the only excitement surrounding a recent Met production had to come from misguided political demonstrations. The Met and their general manager Peter Gelb should be applauded for holding firm in the face of criticism. It is important that this kind of politicized work, in all its rawness, be seen and heard.
Jason Huettner is Editor of Blogs at Warscapes.
Image via Haaretz.