The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams’s 1991 opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, has achieved a rare distinction in contemporary classical music: it’s considered so dangerous by its critics that they’d like to have it banned. For its opponents – the Klinghoffer family, Daniel Pearl’s father, conservative Jewish organisations, and now the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York governor George Pataki, who took part in a noisy demonstration outside the Met last night – Klinghoffer is no less a sacrilege than The Satanic Verses was to Khomeini and his followers. They haven’t issued a fatwa, but they have done their best to sabotage the production ever since the Met announced it.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, capitulated in the summer to pressure from the Anti-Defamation League (and, according to the New York Times, from ‘three or four’ major Jewish donors), cancelling a live broadcast to cinemas around the world. The rationale for the decision, made against the backdrop of the Gaza offensive, was that the opera might be exploited by anti-semites. How, they didn’t say. For some reason the opera’s enemies don’t seem concerned that its unflinching portrayal of the murder of an elderly Jew in a wheelchair might be ‘used’ to foment anti-Muslim sentiment.
The notion that Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, are justifying terrorism is absurd. The hijacking is depicted in all its horror, chaos and fear. The scene that raised accusations of anti-semitism, a dinner table conversation among ‘the Rumors’, an American-Jewish family, was excised from the libretto long ago. The Klinghoffers come off as typical American tourists, and are drawn with wry affection. In a particularly tense scene, Leon Klinghoffer baits his attackers, reciting a litany of attacks by Palestinian commandos. His version of Middle Eastern history could have been lifted from Leon Uris’s Exodus, but in the circumstances it’s a nervy speech: from his wheelchair, he isn’t afraid to confront the men who end up killing him.
Another complaint against Klinghoffer – one that Giuliani, the self-styled saviour of New York after 9/11, has predictably raised – is that it ‘humanises’ the hijackers. But the hijackers were human, and one of the opera’s chief strengths is its refusal to portray them as a collection of monsters. They are certainly not ‘glorified’ – another charge that’s been levelled at the opera. One is a brute who relishes the job, gleefully humiliating the passengers. But another takes pains to tell the ship’s captain about his family’s expulsion from Palestine. And then there is Omar, the reluctant hijacker who – as a British dancer on board describes in a hilarious aria – socialises with the passengers and always ‘kept us in ciggies’. Omar is given the task of killing Klinghoffer: part of the drama of the opera turns on his silent, anguished attempt to steel himself for this act. He dances, he writhes, he imagines himself lying in his mother’s arms, a Palestinian pietà, before finally pulling the trigger. In the words of the journalist Elizabeth Rubin, with whom I saw the dress rehearsal, he’s the Michael Corleone of the opera, who to prove himself in the eyes of tougher men has to transform himself into a ‘soldier’.
Still, you could make the case that if The Death of Klinghoffer caricatures anyone, it’s Palestinians, not Jews. The ‘Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ that opens the opera features a group in Afghan-style clothes, evoking the vanished paradise of pre-1948 Palestine and the Nakba that robbed them of their land and future. Dressed in black and virtually indistinguishable, they’re designated mourners of Palestine, an undifferentiated mass united in suffering and thirsty for revenge. The women are all covered in full abayas, which is unusual among Palestinian women today, and was even more unusual in 1985. The men wear Afghan-style beards that, outside the Gaza Strip, are rare in Palestine. They wave the green flag of Islam, not the Palestinian red green, white and black flag that even Hamas prefers. The effect of the set design is to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an episode in a larger clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. The libretto, too, accentuates the ‘civilisational’ dimensions of the conflict. With their incantatory talk about Islam and their love of martyrdom, the hijackers sound more like members of Hamas (which emerged only in 1988) than of Abu Abbas’s secular nationalist PLF.
The ‘Chorus of Exiled Jews’ which follows is a much sweeter, more intimate piece of music. Their suffering has not been poisoned by anger, but is suffused with sorrow and the hope of renewal. The Jews wear different kinds of clothing; one lyric refers to Hassidim protesting against a cinema opening in Israel, a reminder that Jews aren’t a monolith. Perhaps Goodman’s implication is that after 1948 – when, for those who follow the Zionist narrative, their ‘exile’ ended – Jews could be individuals rather than history’s victims; Palestinians, still under occupation or in exile, have no such luxury. Still, the collective depiction of Palestinians in the opera looks like a failure of imagination.
In 2001, Richard Taruskin accused The Death of Klinghoffer of ‘romantically idealising criminals’: the Palestinian hijackers, he said, are moved by higher ideals than their victims, ideas of collective struggle and sacrifice. It’s a fair description of the libretto, but it also misses the point: it’s precisely those noble ideals that lead the hijackers to murder an unarmed civilian. I suspect that what disturbs the opera’s critics is that Palestinian suffering is expressed with such eloquence and compassion, not only in the libretto but in the score. Taruskin and others have complained that some of the most stirring music occurs in the ‘Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’. It’s a telling criticism, an example of what Talking Heads called the ‘fear of music’: the anxiety that musical beauty might act on its listeners in transgressive ways, and lead to forbidden forms of pleasure or sympathy. What appears to trouble Klinghoffer’s enemies most is that, through the force of his music, Adams has put Western listeners in the shoes of Israel’s victims.
Yet there’s also something unsettling about the chorus, something that causes us to stop short of identification. (The character it’s easiest to identify with is the reasonable and ineffectual ship’s captain, who is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.) The beauty of the Palestinian chorus is stark, brooding and threatening; in Klinghoffer, Palestinians appear condemned to inhabit a realm of perpetual struggle, where life is a battlefield and mundane pleasures are but a memory. And because life is a battlefield, the hijackers see themselves as ‘soldiers’, not terrorists, when they storm the ship – and when they execute Klinghoffer. The comparative superficiality of the passengers on the Achille Lauro – which, in the case of the Klinghoffers, has been misconstrued as anti-semitic caricature – is a mark of their innocence, their freedom and their privilege. Oblivious to the history that connects them to their tormentors, they naturally see the attack by these ‘meshugganah’ (as Marilyn Klinghoffer calls them) as an inexplicable accident: their reaction makes them more recognisable, and more believable. The contrast is perhaps too neatly drawn, but it captures a clash in perception that is arguably a strong feature of the encounter between kidnapper and captive.
Those who are afraid of The Death of Klinghoffer because Palestinians have been awarded some of its most beautiful music haven’t listened very carefully – or haven’t stayed in their seats until the end. The heartbreaking aria that closes the opera belongs to Marilyn Klinghoffer, mourning her husband with controlled anguish. The loss that The Death of Klinghoffer invites us to experience most acutely is personal, not political.