Terrorism as Art?
by

With exquisitely bad timing, and amid furious protests, this week the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new version of John Adams’ controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera focuses on the 1985 murder of a disabled American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, by Palestinian terrorists during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Klinghoffer was shot because he was Jewish; his killers forced the crew to throw his body and wheelchair overboard.

Apparently, this was just the catalyst director/provocateur Peter Sellars needed to propose that composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman write a new opera addressing terrorism (they had previously collaborated on Nixon in China). In his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, John Adams admits he was initially wary of the project, but became interested because the murder “touched a nerve that went deep into the body politic of our lives as comfortable, self-satisfied Americans.” He should have listened to his instincts. The public perception, fair or not, that his opera makes excuses for terrorism has tainted this work ever since its 1991 debut. Monday’s night’s premier of The Death of Klinghoffer at the Metropolitan Opera House proved that — 23 years later — the controversy has not subsided, but grown more virulent.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Lincoln Center, singing the American and Israeli national anthems, denouncing the work as anti-Semitic — “an operatic Kristallnacht” — and accusing the Metropolitan House of becoming a “safe house for terrorists.” Some protesters brought wheelchairs, crying out “shame” to ticket holders entering Lincoln Center through the police barricades. Inside the opera house, many audience members were equally heated in their denunciations of the protesters outside. A women sitting next to me, who identified herself as Jewish, summed up many comments I heard: “This is America, not Nazi Germany. They have the right to disagree, but we have the right to see it.” The discussion even reached the women’s restroom, where I heard one matriarch explaining to the restroom attendant and a stranger drying her hands why she was more upset about the protesters, whose actions she compared with Hitler’s, than the content of the opera. She was one of many in the hefty crowd attending opening night who apparently saw themselves as crusaders for freedom of artistic expression.

The political theater continued all during the first act, with protesters continually disrupting the performance with organized booing, at one point chanting “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven” (to which one woman responded, “No one here is trying to forget it!”). Another woman in the audience yelled “Shut up” to someone sitting near her, to whom he responded “Make me,” which brought beefy Met security staff running down the aisles. The clamor mostly died down by the second act, but the tension was enough to ensure that the evening was more unpleasant than necessary. It’s little wonder that NYPD officers told me they will be on hand inside the opera house for all eight performances. So is it worth braving the uproar to see and hear what some characterize as a “masterpiece”?” The Met’s marketing slogan for this opera is, “See it. Then Decide.” So I did.

For me, The Death of Klinghoffer is an interesting, but flawed work that fails to overcome a problematic libretto, and can’t quite bring the music up to the dramatic level of the horrific events it depicts. On first hearing, it doesn’t seem to be worth all the fuss that is being made over it. It is basically an oratorio, not an opera, with choral interludes interspersed between scenes recalling the events of the title. Unfortunately, the meaning of these mystical, sometimes quasi-religious, choral meditations is often incomprehensible. As the evening wore on, the opera began to take on the character of a tedious sermon rather than a compelling drama.

The musical language of the opera is modern and “minimalist,” but accessible. In a few places, it is even beautiful. Strangely for an opera composer, John Adams is often most compelling when writing for the orchestra and chorus, not the solo voice. He is especially effective when infusing the score with surprising and interesting orchestral color, which punctuates some of the more dramatic scenes in this opera. But there isn’t enough beauty or poetry to make up for the monotony of the long monologues sung by the principal characters, strung out over the spare orchestral pedal point that dominates this work.

The biggest problem, however, is not the music but the libretto. The language of the choral passages — and many of the terrorist monologues — is lyric poetry, which doesn’t lend itself very well to the operatic stage. In addition, it’s difficult to ignore that the Palestinians/ terrorists win the war of the lyrics —they get to wax poetically about their motives and their fate, while the cruise ship passengers and Jewish victims sing mostly about the banalities of everyday life. The terrorist Mamoud, for example, sings in poetical flights of fancy about the freedom of birds to fly anywhere they want, unencumbered by war. His aria is the most beautiful passage in the entire opera. By contrast, an Austrian woman (sung by Theodora Hanslowe) recounts her strategy for surviving the terrorist attack: limiting herself to a little square of chocolate and a piece of fruit from a gift basket every few hours, while she hides out in her state room.

As if that weren’t odd enough, the characterization of Marilyn Klinghoffer — Leon Klinghoffer’s wife, who died of colon cancer just a few months after her husband’s murder — is inexplicably irritating. Her first aria is a litany of complaints about bodily aches and pains. John Adams defends this material as a “moving acknowledgement of her sense of frailty and mortality.” But on the page and on the stage, the character comes across as cranky and unlikeable. Furthermore, after Mrs. Klinghoffer learns her husband has been murdered, she unleashes her fury on the Captain, threatening to spit in his face. She goes on to recall how she used to sit with her husband at night reading, never looking up from her book, and despairs that the world will take no notice of his death because he is only one person. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens tried her best to infuse the role of Marilyn Klinghoffer with empathy, but couldn’t quite rescue her character’s dignity from the lyrics.

But the passage that has provoked the most fury is the one given to the terrorist Rambo, who mocks Leon Klinghoffer, who is in a wheelchair. Rambo sings: “You are always complaining of your suffering. But wherever poor men are gathered they can find Jews getting fat.”And later, America is one big Jew.”In his autobiography, Adams defends these lyrics, writing, “His (Rambo’s) words are disgusting, but is that not precisely how so many hopeless and disenfranchised poor in the Middle East feel about us?” One wonders if Adams or his collaborators ever considered that repeating this kind of defamatory stereotype — regardless of the context — might provoke justifiable outrage, not only in the Jewish community but among many others in post-9/11 America.

The problems with the voicing in the libretto are all the more curious because author Alice Goodman was born into what she herself describes as an observant Jewish family. She attended Hebrew school, and only later in life converted to Anglicanism, eventually becoming an Anglican minister. That explains why there is so much biblical-infused verse in this libretto. Nevertheless, she extends little poetic grace to her Jewish characters.

In an interview in Opera magazine, she said, “People don’t like the way I presented Klinghoffer as an ordinary, touchy, vulgar bourgeois…. Well, some of us can be very vulgar—we aren’t all Nathan the Wise.” Does she know something about the Klinghoffers we don’t? Apparently not. In an open letter to the Met, daughters Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer note that the creators of this opera never bothered to contact them or consult with them about the opera, or the characters, that will forever bear their parents’ names. They describe their dad as a sweet man, who loved to tinker with gadgets and invented the rotisserie oven. I can think of no better illustration of historian Paul Johnson’s observation that intellectuals care more about ideas than actual people.

The opera is not without compelling moments, although they are few. One of the most poignant scenes is the chorus of the exiled Jews, who file onto the stage carrying suitcases, and take little trees out of their luggage to plant in the desertscape. And one of the strongest scenes is given to Leon Klinghoffer, who rises up from his wheelchair and calls out the terrorists for murdering innocent men, women, and children in cowardly and heinous ways. He, and the Captain — who offers himself as a sacrificial victim in exchange for the passengers’ lives — are the heroes of this opera.

The role of the Captain was sung with focus, force, and anguish, by Tony Award winning baritone Paulo Szot. Baritone Alan Opie portrayed Leon Klinghoffer as a somewhat gruff, ordinary kind of guy who refuses to be cowed by his captors. The terrorist roles are difficult to play without falling into caricature. But tenor Sean Panikkar, as Molqi, did an especially convincing job portraying a cocky killer with a gun and no conscience. He and his fellow terrorists (sung by Ryan Speedo Green and Aubrey Allicock, with dancer Jesse Kovarsky) saunter down a gangplank and into the audience at the end of the opera, exiting the theater.

Like many modern opera productions, this one has its share of gratuitous and extraneous elements that add little but confusion. The ballet/tableau of the two male dancers clad in flesh-colored underwear, unfolding their arms as if they were tree limbs during a choral scene is strange. One of the sets — a graffiti ridden urban backdrop featuring the Statue of Liberty in tears — is not only an obvious political statement, but muddies the sense of time and place. Where are we? In a Palestinian refugee camp, or New York? The terrorist Omar, who shoots Klinghoffer, is now a dancer, not a singer. His aria longing for martyrdom is now sung by a woman (Maya Lahyani), who clings to him while he twists and writhes about. And the slow-motion pantomime of the wheelchair parts after Leon Klinghoffer is shot — which, unlike the original, takes place on stage — borders on the burlesque.

In interviews, composer John Adams has referenced great composer-dramatists, including Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, as models whose grand operas raised the tragic to the level of mythic. But The Death of Klinghoffer is not grand opera. It is essentially a chamber work, lengthened with choruses into a two-act format. Watching it was an ordeal, and not just because of the atmospherics. I felt trapped in someone else’s nightmare, with no hope of redemption, and relieved when it was over. That’s not what most people want to experience when they go to the opera. Nevertheless, some have found this work profound and even thought provoking. But having read the libretto several times, and attended a performance, I find the most thought-provoking aspect of this opera is why the artists who created it remain stubbornly tone-deaf to the causes of the controversy they have created.

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