In the moments before he was shot, Leon Klinghoffer did not know his death would one day be the subject of an opera.
Nor did the members of the Palestine Liberation Front, who ordered the disabled American Jew’s body be dumped overboard into the Mediterranean along with his wheelchair, know that their voices would one day soar above an orchestra.
Nor were Marilyn Klinghoffer and the scores of other hostages huddled alongside her on the upper deck of an Italian luxury cruise liner aware of her husband’s quiet execution on the ship below, let alone that their experience would be relived on the most celebrated stages around the world.
It is likely that the hostages and hijackers on board, gripped with panic, denial, excitement, and desperation may have felt at some point during the forty-eight hour ordeal that their immediate feelings of trauma were part of something bigger, perhaps of political, historic, even spiritual proportions. But, could such an event have even a trace of aesthetic significance?
In the quarter-century since Johns Adams composed The Death of Klinghoffer — which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro — the work has been staged two dozen times by opera companies around the world, garnering critical acclaim as well as perennial controversy. Seen as glorifying Palestinian terrorism while trivializing the middle-class lives of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, the opera has been condemned as antisemitic, anti-Israel, anti-American, anti-bourgeois, and, in some cases, just bad art.
In a notorious December 2001 op-ed for the New York Times, musicologist Richard Taruskin defended the Boston Symphony’s decision to cancel its scheduled performances of the choruses from Klinghoffer, writing, “In the wake of 9/11, we might want, finally, to get beyond sentimental complacency about art. Art is not blameless. Art can inflict harm. The Taliban know that. It’s about time we learned.” As an alternative to Taliban-esque repression, Taruskin called for “forbearance” among performing arts institutions in curating their productions.
This past summer, the Metropolitan Opera was compelled to cancel the global simulcast of its first-ever staging of Klinghoffer, scheduled for October, after receiving pressure from American Zionist groups. The furor continued to mount as hundreds of protesters gathered in front of Lincoln Center outside the Met’s season-opening festivities in September and another large crowd arrived to mark Klinghoffer’s opening night a month later.
Critics, commentators, and bloggers have defended the Met and Klinghoffer against what they see as the demonstrators’ ignorant, ludicrous accusations. In the court of public opinion, it would seem that the opera’s supporters have won the debate. Nevertheless, it is worth investigating the claims made by both sides, as they offer a perfect embodiment of the ideological limitations and distortions inherent in mainstream American discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
On the right stand the protestors and their supporters, holding firmly to an extremist brand of Zionism and a belief in the purity of art. Former New York City mayor and opera buff Rudy Giuliani spoke at the opening night protest of the “distorted view of history” presented in Klinghoffer, though he defended the Met’s right to stage it.
Others were less conciliatory. CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who three years ago campaigned to block playwright Tony Kushner from receiving an honorary degree for allegedly being a Nazi-sympathizing “kapo,” demanded that the multimillion-dollar Klinghoffer set be “burned for tinder.”
Wiesenfeld’s fiery rhetoric aside, his speech was a perfect encapsulation of the neoconservative view of art informing the protesters’ objection to the opera. Quoting the father of Daniel Pearl, the American-Israeli journalist kidnapped in Pakistan and murdered by an Al-Qaeda militant in 2002, Wiesenfeld read, “What we are seeing in New York is not an artistic expression that challenges the limits of morality but a moral deformity that challenges the limits of art.”
Furthermore, “The Metropolitan Opera has squandered humanity’s greatest treasure, our moral compass, our sense of right and wrong, our reverence for music as a noble expression of the human spirit.”
The quote suggests that music belongs to a pure domain of human experience entirely removed from the untidy affairs of the world. For better or worse, this early Romantic conception of art no longer carries weight in a society that has long since collapsed such lofty vehicles of transcendence into the everyday realm of commercialism — precisely a development the creators of Klinghoffer attempt to address.
This Romantic conception of art is present even in less articulate statements by the opera’s detractors, such as a protester’s sign that read, “I have not seen the opera for the same reason I do not eat garbage — it smells.”
Contrary to the frequent complaint of liberal commentators that the naysayers contradict themselves by refusing to see Klinghoffer, the refusenik stance is perfectly consistent with the protestors’ conservative aesthetic principles. To them, the opera fails the test of transcendence, since it neutrally portrays an evil act of terror, a phenomenon that epitomizes the complete mess humans make of the real world. In other words, the opera is not “art” because it “smells” of terrorism.
The protesters are self-contradictory in a different sense. One of their chief gripes is that Adams romanticizes terrorism by airing the Palestinians’ grievances, accompanied by lush orchestration. Giuliani declared in his speech that the killing “was a pure act of terror, for which there were no justifiable reasons.”
The former mayor may have been thinking of Adams’s fictional hijacker Mamoud, who sings of the massacring of his mother and brother in 1982 by an Israeli-backed Lebanese-Christian militia, “She was killed with the old men and children in camps at Sabra and Chatila / where Almighty God In His mercy showed my decapitated brother to me / and in His mercy allowed me to close my brother’s eyes and wipe his face.”
The implication in Giuliani’s comment is not that the hijackers’ motivations weren’t rooted in any real grievances, but that any invocation of such grievances amounts to a justification of their actions. The reason is simple, as Giuliani and many other protesters stated: an act of terror is “pure” evil stemming from some dark nether region. Any worldly causes adduced in trying to account for such an act is tantamount to rationalizing the irrational; evil, like art in its Romantic ideal, exists apart from the world, for its own sake.
The hardships that lead some Palestinians to commit terrorist acts may be of biographical interest, protesters might concede, but they are immaterial to the act itself, which can only have derived from a transcendent wickedness. In short, the Klinghoffer protesters were quite confused in charging John Adams with romanticizing terrorism, because they had already done so.
To the left of the protesters, though not by much, resides the liberal mainstream. Its perspective, held by the majority of critical commentators as well as the broad artistic community surrounding the opera’s production, upholds the inalienable right to artistic freedom of expression, and goes even further in defending the opera as fostering an enlightened understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In response to the September Klinghoffer protests, New York Observer opera critic and self-proclaimed liberal James Jorden waxes eloquent:
The function of art or at least of high art, is not to reinforce existing prejudices. A work of art is not supposed to agree with us any more than we are required to agree with it. On the contrary, art is supposed to inspire a dialogue, even an argument with the spectator and with society as a whole. If that dialogue is quashed by a few hundred, or even thousands of protesters, then art cannot exist.
For the tolerant liberal, art is not pure, but it can take advantage of its semi-neutral reflective character to help humans communicate better, and maybe even one day get along.
Adams himself intended for the opera to transcend the finger-pointing exercises featured on faux-objective news channels. “What I emphatically did not do,” he writes in his 2008 memoir Hallelujah Junction, “was tally up the number of bars assigned to one side or the other, and I did not keep a running account of how much ‘noble’ or ‘beautiful’ music was accorded to the hijackers as opposed to how much was given to the hostages or to the Jews.”
In researching for the opera, Adams rejected the more radical left critique of the Israel-Palestine conflict for what he perceived as its stubborn partisanship. “I read several books by Noam Chomsky,” he writes, “but I found this philosopher turned activist implacably one-sided. His Manichean explanation for all the problems on the planet never failed to lay the blame on American greed and power-mongering. Chomsky would not, probably could not, acknowledge a single example of right action or right attitude on the part of America or Israel.”
That Chomsky so consistently invokes the Golden Rule to expose the hypocrisy of the powers that act in his name can only appear as “Manichean” to high-flying aesthetes like Adams who claim to surpass morality, and directly engage the human condition.
Determined to overcome the deadlocked realm of politics, Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman constructed a drama that alternates between ethereal choruses and the fast-paced action on board the Achille Lauro. Adams’s and Goodmans’s opening choruses set the tone, as both “exiled Palestinians” and “exiled Jews” are afforded an opportunity to relate their respective narratives. The remainder of the work is infused with what Adams calls the “oracular” tone of the initial choruses, as even the characters on board sing of their present actions in a timeless, reflective manner.
With the exception of the Klinghoffers, the dominant characters — most notably, the Captain and the Palestinian hijackers — serve as vessels for delivering larger-than-life utterances. At one point the Palestinian, Mamoud, takes a break from his hijacking to muse on the birds hovering above, those “messengers of God / angels freed to marry and die.”
The Captain, in one of his many interminable soliloquies, sings of the “comprehensive solitude / which sharpens one’s senses” at sea, where “good and evil are not abstract,” but “one tastes their advent.” Later, he exhorts Mamoud, “If you could talk like this, sitting among your enemies, peace would come.” Mamoud demurs, favoring death over dialogue.
In the Captain’s diplomatic tone, one hears Adams and Goodman imploring the Palestinians to renounce violence and enter into negotiations, a familiar precondition to peace talks issued by the Israeli state. No equivalent demand is made of the other side, either in the real world or in Goodman’s libretto, as individual Israelis are conspicuously absent from the opera. In the lofty poetics that suffuse the piece, one hears not a timeless voice of justice but the familiar voice of a cynical US diplomat: more often than not, the libretto sounds like a John Kerry speech peppered with angel references.
This hints at Klinghoffer’s primary contradiction. In Adams’s noble attempt to transcend politics, he ironically reproduces the high-minded ideology of the official “peace process” in all its real-world futility. The opera’s conceit is rooted in the same American exceptionalism held by government spokespersons and Beltway pundits, who perpetuate the myth of the United States as an “honest broker” in the Israel-Palestine conflict, standing bravely between two merciless foes.
The billions of tax dollars funneled from Washington to Tel Aviv every year, the crucial geopolitical alliance between their militaries, the capture of Congress by AIPAC, the expressions of the US and Israel’s “undying bond” uttered by every American president — these are all trivial details in the face of the United States’ benevolent neutrality. Adams unwittingly aligns his Klinghoffer with the transcendent mission of the US government to rise above politics, to bypass international law, and to unilaterally manage conflicts in accord with its own material interests.
In his starry-eyed, liberal gaze, Adams indeed romanticizes Palestinian as well as Israeli narratives. This is somewhat fitting, given that both Palestinian liberation and Zionist movements inherited strains of nineteenth-century Romantic nationalism in their quests for statehood. But the effect in Klinghoffer is to obscure, not elucidate, this history. In their opening chorus, Palestinians cry out that “Our faith will take the stones he broke / and break his teeth.”
In the recent Met production, designers Tom Pye and Laura Hopkins handed some chorus members Hamas-green flags while choreographer Arthur Pita animated others with the involuntary convulsions of a hell-bent madman.
Though the opera’s creators and producers made an earnest effort to humanize Palestinians, the results hardly went beyond the mainstream media’s demonizing caricatures they wished to transcend: Palestinians came across as death-worshiping religious fanatics, frothing at the mouth with nihilistic vengeance. Nor did the portrayal of exiled Jews win any awards for subtlety: through their lustful, Holocaust-burnt consciousness they sing of rising again in the barren Holy Land, in a display worthy of a typical Birthright Israel presentation.
While he had the opportunity to use the orchestra’s voice to cast doubt on the ideological trappings of the libretto, Adams’s music merely reinforces the stereotypes peddled on stage. Alternating between an incessant churning and an aimless ambience characteristic of the minimalist tradition, Adams’ score itself promotes the self-serving, apolitical outlook that sees social progress as a slow evolution, external to human intervention.
The opera, in fact, makes a mockery of the idea of human agency. It is true, as musicologist Robert Fink pointed out in 2005, that Klinghoffer “attempts to counterpoise to terror’s deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.”
But the fact that the Klinghoffers’ prosaic lines are the most human in the whole show, before Leon is executed and Marilyn closes the work in mourning, is quite revealing. The opera is not antisemitic, it is anti-peace. Adams throws all hope for a just political settlement to the conflict into the sea along with Leon Klinghoffer’s corpse.
Klinghoffer falls short in its mission to inspire meaningful understanding or dialogue among its audiences, because it remains trapped inside what Adams himself calls “the most carefully controlled and fastidiously managed debate in American political life.”
Within the echo chamber of mainstream American discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the “life-affirming virtues” of an “ordinary” Palestinian are naturally excluded. That religion, whether Islam or Christianity, might inspire Palestinians living under military occupation to go to school or earn a living or rebuild their shelled homes, rather than to commit an act of violence, is not an idea that occurred to the opera or its reviewers.
And the hubbub surrounding the Met’s Klinghoffer production was perhaps most striking for being utterly devoid of Palestinian perspectives. Since Palestinians are without any power, and probably any desire, to enter the debate, the liberal mainstream was left to navel-gazing.
Taruskin was right to ask, “Why should we want to hear this music right now?” — but for precisely the wrong reasons. Indeed, “Art is not blameless. It can inflict harm.” It can, in the case of Klinghoffer, encourage Western audiences to keep believing that they can do nothing about the Israel-Palestine conflict besides meditate on the two supposedly irreconcilable narratives of its antagonists.
In the mean time, a single narrative of US-backed settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and occupation continues to stir resentment in the West Bank, while Gaza has been left for rubble after another Israeli invasion this past summer left over two thousand Palestinians dead.
In April 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, disabled Palestinian Kemal Zughayer was shot and killed while holding a white flag, his body and wheelchair crushed underneath a tank during Israel’s invasion of the Jenin refugee camp. His name, virtually unknown to the American media and its consumers, joins the tens of thousands of other anonymous Palestinian Klinghoffers whom art could not save.