‘Klinghoffer’ the opera: Biased and banal

‘Klinghoffer’ the opera: Biased and banal

Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, inset, and the hijacked ship Achille Lauro.

An opera about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians might have been absolutely splendid. But one deep-seated defect of composer John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” is that he, along with librettist Alice Goodman, is biased against Israel.

Another defect: They are intellectual lightweights.

The opera has gotten loads of free publicity lately, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s decision not to broadcast the opera around the world come October but just to perform it on stage in Manhattan. A number of leaders of Jewish organizations – including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League – had complained about the opera to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, pointing out that it might inflame anti-Israel sentiments abroad and lead to anti-Jewish incidents.

You don’t have to have seen the opera, which is based on real events, to recognize that it contains anti-Semitic elements. (I saw the filmed version, made in 2003, conducted by Mr. Adams himself, with a screenplay by Penny Woodruff, who also directed. The film seems to be more pro-Palestinian than the opera itself.)

The terrorist called Rambo, one of four who hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, sings to Leon Klinghoffer, a Jew: “You are always complaining of your suffering but wherever poor people are gathered they can find Jews getting fat. America is one big Jew.”

Another terrorist, Molqi, sings: “We are soldiers fighting a war. We are not criminals and not vandals. We are men of ideals.” This is the hijacker who actually shot and killed Klinghoffer, a disabled, defenseless 69-year-old Jew confined to a wheelchair. (In real life, one of these “men of ideals” asked an elderly Austrian couple if they were Jewish. When the man said yes, the gunman knocked him to the ground and hit him in the head repeatedly with his gun butt.)

The film begins with black-and-white photography – not historical footage – of Jewish settlers chasing Palestinian men, women, and children out of their homes. (One of the children, we learn, is the mother of a hijacker.) Later we see Jews moving into the houses.

The film proceeds to show much of the action aboard the ship through the eyes of the hijackers, sometimes sympathetically. Even the most vicious hijacker, Rambo, who torments Klinghoffer by shoving around his wheelchair, is shown in a flashback grieving over a relative killed by the Israelis. Another gunman, Mamoud, sings about how pleasant it was to view the dawn through the window of his house. One keeps the hostages supplied with cigarettes. One weeps at the death of Klinghoffer. Another throws up.

The poor terrorists!

From many of the newspaper accounts, you might think that “Death of Klinghoffer” is a musical masterpiece. But a number of leading critics, who had seen earlier performances of the opera, had reservations.

The Wall Street Journal’s Raymond Sokolov found the opera anti-Israel, writing that “Surely there is nothing in the libretto in an anti-Arab vein to match the repulsive anti-Semitism that drools from the mouth of a character called ‘Rambo.'” And he called the opera’s portrayal of Jews and terrorists “obnoxious”; it mocks the Klinghoffers and their friends while arguing that the murderers acted out the “righteous anger of their oppressed brethren.”

Tim Page at Newsday called the opera “pompous, turgid, derivative, and hopelessly confused.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, Page also objected to the libretto’s portraying the terrorists as “real men … as opposed to the opera’s nattering, ineffectual Jewish characters.” In the original version, a Jewish family from New Jersey, the Rumors, bicker over finances and bathroom matters. That family was later removed from the opera. That apparently was too much even for Mr. Adams and Mr. Goodman.

I found the music to be unmelodious and unmemorable.

Yes, “Death of Klinghoffer” is obviously biased. The composer and librettist say that they had agreed to try to be neutral – pro and con Israelis, pro and con the Palestinians. Hence the title: not “murder,” just “death.” The late Samuel Lipman, a renowned music critic, wrote in Commentary: “[T]he pretense of not taking sides, of ‘even-handedness,’ is just that – a pretense. For in treating the murder of Klinghoffer as a ‘death,’ and in viewing the incident through the lens of moral equivalence, the opera for all practical purposes endorses the claims of the Palestinian assassins.”

In agreeing to be neutral, the two tipped their hands. Americans in general are not neutral. Recent polls have found that 59 percent of Americans side with Israel, 13 percent with the Palestinians.

The main message of the opera – murky though it is – seems to be that because of Palestinian losses and suffering during the war of 1948, today’s Palestinians are justified in whatever they do to any Jews, including murdering an elderly, disabled Jewish American civilian. It is the same demented thinking that blames all Jews – everywhere, for all time – because a small group of Jews, 2,000 years ago, supposedly helped crucify Jesus. In short, this modern opera engages in crude, time-dishonored anti-Semitic thinking.

In case any opera-goer fails to follow the argument, the filmed opera has the same actor, playing an Israeli Holocaust survivor who forces Palestinians out of their homes, winding up, years later, as a passenger abroad the Achille Lauro. To make it obvious, he has the same pattern of scars on his back.

The Jews aboard the cruise ship are mocked. Whereas in an earlier film, “Voyage of Terror,” Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint, who play the Klinghoffers, talk about their love for each other, Mrs. Klinghoffer in the Adams/Goodman opera chatters about illnesses.

The terrorists are not just romanticized, as musicologist Richard Taruskin has complained, but given the best music in the not-very-musically-interesting opera.

Asked about this in an interview, Ms. Goodman lost her temper. Should the terrorists have been given “ugly” music to sing? Well, how about appropriate music? There’s fine music for villains. Verdi wrote arias for Iago. Gounod wrote arias for Satan.

In fact, Ms. Goodman reported that Mr. Adams (and producer Peter Sellars, who had come up with the idea for the opera) wanted the terrorists in “Death of Klinghoffer” to be even more praiseworthy.

She demurred. “They’re not Smurfs!” she told them. (Smurfs are harmless, humorous cartoon characters.)

Ms. Goodman grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of religious Jews. She converted to Christianity after becoming sympathetic to the Palestinians. “Even when I was a child, I didn’t totally buy … the State of Israel being the recompense for the murder of European Jewry.” She now lives in England and is a rector in the Anglican church. She prepared herself to write “Death of Klinghoffer,” she has said, by reading the Koran.

Whether someone who has renounced a religion is a good candidate to write an opera dealing with adherents of that religion may be questionable. In any case, critics have blamed Ms. Goodman for the platitudinous longueurs of “Death of Klinghoffer.” Those include the ending, which goes on and on, and the pretentious, junky language (something has “grown exponentially”; someone is a “rara avis”). She has said that hostility toward the opera has caused her not to write any more libretti.

Mr. Adams loathed two TV films already made about the hijacking, films sympathetic toward the hostages and hostile toward the terrorists. (Besides the Lancaster-Eva Marie Saint film, there was a Karl Malden-Lee Grant film, “The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro.”)

Mr. Adams and Ms. Goodman also worked together on an earlier opera, “Nixon in China.” That opera too had its detractors. The New York Times’ chief music critic at the time, Donal Henahan, called the work “fluff,” and “worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory.” James Wierzbicki of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the opera “more interesting than good … a novelty, not much more.” TV critic Marvin Kitman wrote: “There are only three things wrong with ‘Nixon in China’: One, the libretto; two, the music; three, the direction. Outside of that, it’s perfect.”

It is perhaps telling that Samuel Lipman wrote in Commentary, “Sadly, the most intriguing aspect of the production also was the most offensive: the presentation of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, as a lumpish, often clearly menacing and altogether sinister figure, mostly silent but always evil in aspect. Indeed … Kissinger bears an uncomfortable resemblance to what might have appeared in an illustrated anti-Semitic tract of the 1930s.”

Mr. Adams himself has said that his views on Israel and the Palestinians were strongly influenced by Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor. Said claimed to be Palestinian, but it turned out that he had grown up as part of a wealthy family in Cairo. He was fiercely anti-Israel, and wanted Israel no longer to function as a Jewish state – though he conceded that Jews deserve a nation of their own.

Edward Alexander, a retired English professor at the University of Seattle, has called Mr. Said the “professor of terror,” and referred to “his thinly-veiled anti-Semitism and blatant anti-Americanism.” Mr. Said’s reputation suffered when he was spotted in Lebanon, throwing rocks across the border at Israeli soldiers.

Has “Death of Klinghoffer” actually been “censored,” as some commentators have claimed? Because it will now be shown in fewer places? “Censored” doesn’t seem to be the right word. No doubt certain works of art can produce tragic consequences. There are “copycat suicides,” sometimes called the Werther Effect after Goethe’s novel about a young man whose suicide was emulated by other young men at the time. (Norway may be the only country that now forbids the publication of news about suicides, though many media are careful when they transmit such stories.)

Another example: The film “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent movie directed by D.W. Griffith and set immediately after the Civil War, celebrated the monstrous Ku Klux Klan while portraying newly freed blacks, played by white actors in blackface, as unintelligent and as rapists. When it opened, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities, with whites attacking blacks. Chicago, Denver, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh refused to let the film open. In Indiana, after he saw the film a white man murdered a black teenager.

Beyond the possible dire consequences of showcasing deeply controversial art, like depictions of Muhammed, there’s the question of offensiveness. Did the Met want to offend the Klinghoffer family? And offend Jews in general?

The Met had ample precedent for what it did. Glyndebourne and the Los Angeles Opera declined to present “Death of Klinghoffer,” and the Boston Symphony decided not to offer excerpts.

Other works of art have been bottled up. A 1958 film version of “Porgy and Bess,” with Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier, was withdrawn by the estate of the Gershwin family, apparently because African-Americans took offense at its depiction of black violence and drug-taking. Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” has been withdrawn because of its condescending attitude toward black people. And when is the last time you had an opportunity to see “Birth of a Nation,” considered one of the greatest of American films despite its crude racism?

True, certain classic works of art are anti-Semitic, yet today they are performed quietly and without controversy. They include a few Wagner operas, Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”

But I think it’s safe to predict that “Death of Klinghoffer” will not become a classic, a permanent fixture in the operatic repertory.

Commentary’s Samuel Lipman has written: “As ‘Klinghoffer’ makes clear, [Mr. Adams] has a very limited number of musical tools…. The verdict, then, on Adams’s music, in ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ no less than in the earlier ‘Nixon in China,’ is that it is at best utilitarian, a means of occupying the aural space….”

Peter Davis of New York Magazine wrote in June 2003, “Leaving politics aside … what strikes me as most offensive about the work is its sheer ineptitude…. Goodman’s libretto is worse than naïve ““- it fails on just about every level…. All [Adams]… has managed to produce is a hopelessly meandering, tensionless score that sounds like the most vapid New Age pap.”

In short, Alice Goodman is no Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss’ gifted librettist. And John Adams is no Richard Wagner – at least as far as writing music is concerned.

read more: