Who’s afraid of ‘Klinghoffer’?

Adam Shatz

 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 nightKlinghoffer 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.


  • 21 October 2014 at 12:41pm
    mbraverman says:
    Giving a voice to both sides of the conflict and give credit to the humanity of each side is the only way to get a little closer to solve the Israel Palestine conflict, its obviously not a solution but may shorten the gap just a little bit, just enough to permit some kind of discussion.
    As Jews we deal with the prevalent anti-Semitic expressions -both real and perceived- in proactive ways and we need to continue doing so, silencing those voices is not only difficult but also counterproductive.

  • 21 October 2014 at 8:40pm
    streetsj says:
    Bravo braverman

  • 23 October 2014 at 2:35pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Seconding Mr. Street’s “Bravo Braverman” sentiment I would add the following. The opera is being presented at the Met in New York, which has many Jewish patrons and supporters, therefore it may be very atypical of other audiences in other cities where the opera might be performed someday. While some of these Jewish attendees in New York may view the work dispassionately (i.e., as a work of art rather than a polemical statement mediated through music), others may feel that some of its content chips away at the idea of Israel as an existentially threatened state. This leads to a “defend Israel no matter what the facts” mentality, because any criticism of the state (or its equivalent, sympathy for Muslim Palestinians) is seen as opening the cock to a wider spate of anti-Semitism. (I can’t say I disagree with this perception, because anti-Semites really are on a constant look-out for rationalizations and justifications of their beliefs).

    From the cultural point of view a wider issue is raised: the ability of music (an art that usually has no specific political-ideological content), when it is accompanied by words, to inspire emotional responses to the content of the words rather than the dynamics of the music itself. E.g., an “anti-Semitic” or “pro-Palestinian” or”pro-Israel” purely instrumental symphony would be meaningless to most listeners: to achieve its effect it would have to have extensive program notes that instruct the audience about its intentions and how they should respond. Lacking that it would just be instrumental music, which elicits emotions, but without those emotions being paired with specific ideas. In her "Philosophy in a New Key" Suzanne Langer explained the mechanics of this much better than I have here, but I hope you get the idea. The instrumental overtures and preludes and interludes of Wagner are a good example – if you don’t know that Wagner was a committed anti-Semite, they have no “meaning” in this realm of discourse. Once you get to the words-plus-music of the rest of some of his operas, his intentions in this respect become very clear (but not very plausible – he was no deep thinker beyond matters purely musical; still, even educated people fall for this crap because they are “moved” by the music – now you can see why Plato wished to ban poetry from his ideal state, as wooly-minded and biased as he was – he knew that thoughts hooked to strong emotions were “dangerous”).

    Another example comes readily to mind. Suppose a lover of classical music who listens a lot but reads about it little goes to a performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”). He or she doesn’t bother with reading the program notes, where he or she would learn that it was originally to be dedicated to Napoleon, whom Beethoven had considered a liberator and destroyer of the old order before coming to believe that he was merely a tyrant. This listener now has only the music to respond to, and if he puts in the “Viennese classical music” sequence Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven of which he is especially fond, then he notices purely musical differences that elicit different types of emotional responses. The listener may intuit something “heroic” about the piece, but nothing more definite than that. Music shorn of words doesn’t really instruct anyone how to feel about anything in particular. This applies to all program-music – throw away Smetana’s notes to “Ma Vlast” (my country) and you just have a very attractive and skilled piece of late Romantic music. If you don’t know that the name of its movement “The Moldau” (as it is usually denominated in English) would have infuriated the composer, there’s no great loss for you as listener. It’s historically and biographically interesting that Smetana preferred the Czech name (Vltava) for his river, and that his orchestral suite is meant to have Czech consciousness-raising duties (and therefore anti-German ones), but this information can’t and shouldn’t affect the listeners response to the music as music. In Czech concert halls it may inevitably elicit this “patriotic” response, but elsewhere? Probably not, and the listener’s ignorance about the “program” of the music is actually a blessing.

  • 24 October 2014 at 3:50pm
    Walter10065 says:
    Adam Schatz is an outstanding propagandist for Arab anti-Zionism, but he is a propagandist all the same. Many examples could be drawn from this review, but let me restrict myself to just the first few. Schatz suggests that the opponents of a harmless opera are stupid to consider it "dangerous," when in fact they are just angered by what they correctly see as an insult. Schatz blithely implies that an evening of protests and demonstrations are equivalent to a call to murder by a powerful religious leader. And he admits that an anti-Semitic scene was "excised," as if that proves the absence of malice rather than its presence.

    The text is filled with this kind of trickery. One of my favorites is his passing mention of "the vanished paradise of pre-1948 Palestine and the Nakba that robbed [the Palestinians] of their land and future." This would be the paradise of an Arab-controlled Jewish homeland that tolerated Jews at best and and allied with the Nazis at worst. This would be a Muslim society that failed to welcome its persecuted Semitic brothers after World War II and instead attacked them. This would be an Arab civilization that had conquered all of the Middle East and North Africa but couldn't, and still can't, make room for a Jewish homeland. Arabs can have a dozen states, but the anti-Zionists say the Jews don't need even one. Let them live in the U.S., or maybe in South America or on a West African plateau. It's really too much.

    Schatz's central argument is so contradictory that it's almost amusing. The opera, he says, is not anti-Semitic because it shows that it was Arab "noble ideas" that led to murder. This inadvertent insight -- brought up and then abandoned -- reveals the failure of a libretto that does not articulate the reality of Middle Eastern politics, and more importantly the failure of the Palestinian cause, which has at its center a peculiarly savage "nobility" that cannot abandon its demand for religious genocide.

    Schatz pretends to be unable to see how "Klinghofer" might foster anti-Semitism, as if it needs any help from a stupid opera. Plenty of people hate the Jews, and plenty hate the Arabs. Sadly, Schatz isn't doing much to change this state of affairs.

    • 24 October 2014 at 4:54pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Walter10065
      I dislike The Death of Klinghoffer for all sorts of reasons, but I am damned if I can see where the "insult" is in it. Nor do I see how it "fosters" anti-Semitism - unless giving any sort of dramatised voice to an unpleasant, even genocidal, viewpoint is tantamount to endorsing it. Where Klinghoffer fails as drama is precisely in juxtaposing viewpoints while keeping them separate: every side gets its aria. It's a New York Times op-ed set to music.

      The complaints Klinghoffer elicited in its first run were due to its suggestion that the Palestinians were a people, with a collective memory and a shared history. At the time, in certain places, this was a politically toxic notion. But, since Oslo, the idea of Palestinian statehood is supposed have got less toxic. That we're still having arguments about - as you put it - "a stupid opera" suggests a general cultural retrenchment. Adam Schatz may not be doing much to change "this state of affairs", but I don't see much progress from your side of the argument either.

  • 24 October 2014 at 6:02pm
    Walter10065 says:
    Hey, I'm just a reader who'd like to see in the LRB something more than elaborate anti-Zionist cliches. The constitution of Palestinian peoplehood, now there's a subject that could use some thinking, as is the notion that it's OK to exploit the murder of a Jew for profit under the guise of high art. That's the insult, fyi, though it's only an insult. While you're at it, do you think a British animus towards Israel might have roots in the new state's defeat of its colonialist overlord?

    For what it's worth, I don't think Peter Gelb deserves death threats on his answering machine, or that Alice Goodman should be denied work as a librettist. It's those goddam Jews, isn't it? At least John Adams seems untouchable.

  • 24 October 2014 at 6:19pm
    Walter10065 says:
    Oh, I've been stupid, it just occurred to me -- Klinghofer is the HERO of the opera, so it can't be anti-Semitic, much less an insult. Now my question is, why have none of its defenders said as much?

    • 28 October 2014 at 12:21pm
      Rikkeh says: @ Walter10065
      Perhaps the thing that annoys people the most about Klinghoffer is that it's so ambiguous. There are no goodies and no baddies- quasimodo's "hero" is at times extremely unheroic.

      The defenders of the opera who speak out tend to be the people who've seen it in some form or another. While there are many interpretations that you can put on the work, the ideas that there are any "heroes" in the production doesn't strike me as one of them.

      Regarding the protests- there's political hay to be made from opposing the opera, but not from supporting it. Comparatively few people have seen it and fewer actually liked it (I'm not saying that it's bad I'm saying that some people who see it didn't like it).

      I saw the ENO's production a couple of years ago. My interpretation (for what little it's worth) was that it was about the collision between human beings and the causes that they and others follow (or claim to follow), as well as the terrible human cost of such collisions.

  • 24 October 2014 at 11:07pm
    nssfq says:
    "The loss that The Death of Klinghoffer invites us to experience most acutely is personal, not political."

    While it's touching - and I understand its intent - that last statement makes a troubling conclusion, I think, in suggesting that the loss of one [Jewish] man, 'rightly' mourned, is somehow more significant than the tens of thousands [of Palestinians] who've been killed during Israel's occupation of Palestine, and its periodic wars.
    Those losses have been personal, too, and they've been mourned. But because of their number, and the circumstances under which they continue to happen, they're also extremely political.
    Their numbers - and the ongoing multiple layers of injustice - don't make them less important, but more. Those numbers challenge everything I value as a Jew.

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