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Met’s “Klinghoffer” deserves an open mind, not political censorship

October 17, 2014 at 4:08 pm
Maya Lahyani as the Palestinian Woman and Jesse Kovarsky as Omar in John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer," which opens at the Metropolitan Opera Monday night. Photo: Ken Howard

Maya Lahyani as the Palestinian Woman and Jesse Kovarsky as Omar in John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which opens at the Metropolitan Opera Monday night. Photo: Ken Howard

The comedian Bill Maher jokes that he was the only one fired as a result of 9/11. A week after the terrorist attack, he responded to a remark that Dinesh D’Souza, a guest on his ABC show Politically Incorrect, made about the hijackers. D’Souza disagreed with President Bush calling the terrorists cowards, and said they were “warriors.” Maher added “Staying in the airplane while it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Soon after, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was saying that “Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” and the following May the show was cancelled.

Composer John Adams, like Maher, also had no responsibility for what happened on 9/11. But neither was he at fault when the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled previously scheduled performances of the two opening choruses from his opera The Death of Klinghoffer after the terror attacks in 2001. Adams continues to be buffeted by the cultural changes that, along with thirteen years of war, are the fallout of the attacks. He is in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the composer of what many believe to be an anti-Semitic opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which opens Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera with a cast that includes Paolo Szot, Alan Opie, Michaela Martens and Sean Panikkar. David Robertson conducts.

This production, created by Tom Morris, originated at the English National Opera, where it caused nary a stir. Met Opera general manager Peter Gelb has been quoted as saying that he thinks he might have seen a lone person protesting the performances. Yet the summer began here with Gelb announcing the cancellation of the live HD movie theater broadcast of a Klinghoffer performance, slated for November 15. Gelb’s rationale was that the broadcast “would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.” Gelb also stated “I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic.” How something that is not anti-Semitic could augment an asserted and unquantified rise in anti-Semitism is nonsensical.

The decision was a compromise brokered with the Anti-Defamation League, whose director Abraham Foxman has admitted he had never seen the opera. The ADL, confusingly, officially stated that “while the opera itself is not anti-Semitic, there is a concern the opera could be used in foreign countries to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism.” One wonders how a Venn diagram pairing anti-Semites with the audience for the live Met HD broadcast—which is overwhelmingly white, middle-class and above, and elderly—would look.

It’s a solid bet that those the ADL represented were seeking to cancel the production altogether, and the decision did worse than satisfy no one: it inflamed and reinforced the myth that Klinghoffer, in the rhetoric of The Zionist Organization of America, “viciously falsifies history to malign and incite hatred against Israel and the Jewish people.”

One may criticize the opera on artistic grounds, and the cost of a ticket buys not only the right to criticize but to boo as well. But it is foolish to protest against what the opera isn’t—the common thread running through the current animus is that the loudest voices have neither seen nor heard the opera. One of the protesters in front of Lincoln Center at the Met’s season opening performance of Le Nozze di Figaro was quoted by Michael Cooper in the New York Times as saying: “I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard enough about it and I don’t want to see it, frankly.”

What he has heard is not the music but the political gossip of people who have not heard the music. Klinghoffer has had its critics since the premiere in 1991, and there are valid things to criticize in opera and theatrical terms—some of the music is clumsy, the pace is uneven, there is a mix of characters and ciphers, and centering the narrative on the Captain is not entirely successful.

The main objections are not about its artistic value but about its content. Edward Rothstein asserted that the piece sought to morally balance Palestinian terrorists and Jews (a political, not a dramatic, complaint). After 9/11, the eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin, in an extended New York Times article, argued for the suppression of Klinghoffer, calling that “forbearance,” while accusing Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and the original director Peter Sellars of romanticizing terrorism.

These are deeply tendentious responses, taking the emotionally charged yet intellectually vapid premise that to show something is to endorse it, and that words and actions given to characters express the inherent intent and sentiments of the creator.

For his detractors, Adams is indirectly and unintentionally responsible—another measure of his importance. His Nixon in China led to the term “CNN opera,” not only inspiring numerous operas ripped from the headlines, as it were, but compelling people without interest in the form to judge it in terms of documentary accuracy. An ear that is preconditioned by argument will hear what it wants, find what it seeks. But what is actually in Klinghoffer?

The drama is abstracted, almost without plot, modeled specifically after Bach’s Passion oratorios. There are no killings in the stage directions (one passenger is killed before the terrorists execute Leon Klinghoffer). The most beautiful and eloquent music is that for Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, who ends the opera with a gripping, slashing aria. But the Palestinians, who were figures in the actual events and thus indispensable characters in the drama, speak.

The opening music is the “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians,” where a narrative voice laments the expulsion from their homes in the aftermath of the 1948 war. Immediately following is the “Chorus of the Exiled Jews.”

A listener seeking the artificial balance of equal time for arguments would already be lost, because the words, the music, and the very context of history make it plain that the Palestinians are marshaling their anger and justifying their actions, while the Jews are seeking, perhaps vainly, to bury the horror of the Holocaust in hopes for love in a new homeland. The Palestinians have lovely music that turns strident, the Jews have haunting music that maintains a plangent abstraction, and that leaves a greater impression. And the music rises from F major to G, which in opera is an invariable harmonic signal that the latter music is dramatically superior.

The terrorists Molqi, Mamoud, Omar and Rambo sing, and we hear them. Molqi’s music is brittle and clichéd, his language is self-serving: “This is a demonstration/Action for liberation … We are soldiers fighting in a war/We are not criminals/And we are not vandals/But men of ideals.”

They are men, not monsters, with reasons and justifications for their actions. Rambo is brutal and blatantly anti-Semitic, and his words express this. But writing the words and music for these characters no more makes Adams, Goodman, and the opera, anti-Semitic that it did for Mieczysław Weinberg and Alexander Medvedev in their opera The Passenger, which appeared this summer at the Lincoln Center Festival without objections and no protestors in sight. Yet Nazis murder Jews and sing and justify themselves in The Passenger.

Without dramatic justifications of the murderers, the terrorists (and the Nazis) are just faceless, creepy villains. They are horrible people but their actions have no moral meaning. Once Molqi segregates Americans, Britons and Israelis from the rest of the passengers, we know tragedy is coming and we sit helpless to stop it.

By contrast, Leon Klinghoffer, in his wheelchair, sings “We’re human. We are/The kind of people/You like to kill/Was it your pal/Who shot that little girl/At the airport in Rome?” He berates Mamoud: “Old men at the Wailing Wall get a knife/In the back. You laugh/You pour gasoline/Over women/Passengers on/The bus to Tel Aviv.” It would be difficult for any fair-minded individual to honestly approach the opera and come away thinking that the opera is anti-Semitic, or that it places the terrorists on an equal footing with its tragic victim.

The most eloquent and pervasively powerful music is Klinghoffer’s “Aria of the Falling Body,” the words expressing a rich and essential that almost no other character achieves in the work. The accumulation of music and drama to this point makes clear that the terrorists are against humanity and beauty, the dramatic contrast is not between tribes but between ordinary, decent people and violent nihilists.

In the finale, once the ship has docked, the Captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer—the only other fully realized character—about her husband’s murder (she had thought they were merely separated). Her pain and outrage are as real and compelling as anything in the operatic literature sung by fictional tragic heroines like Violetta or Tosca. “It is he whom/The Lord will redeem/When I am dead/I should have died/If a hundred/People were murdered/And their blood/Flowed in the wake/Of this ship like/Oil, only then/Would the world intervene/They should have killed me/I wanted to die.” Those are the last words of the opera.

Anyone seeking moral vindication or political validation should avoid opera, music, and, indeed, all art. When politics are the prevailing motivation, the results are invariably numbing or as dreary as Wellington’s Victory.

What is especially disturbing and misguided about the protests against the Met and The Death of Klinghoffer is that the protestors don’t trust the audience to form their own moral opinions. Those who would seek to ban the opera don’t wish to know what Klinghoffer is and they don’t wish for anyone else to know either.

But unlike Foxman, et al, those audience members who enter the theater Monday night will come with open minds and ears, ready to experience The Death of Klinghoffer on its own merits and form their own opinions. The opera, like all art, asks nothing more or less of its audience.

The Death of Klinghoffer opens Monday at the Metropolitan Opera and continues through November 15. metopera.org

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