Near a barren tree in the middle of a bleak, gray landscape, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians mills about onstage. Wrapped in dark garments, their weary aspects suggesting immigrants at Ellis Island, they contrast starkly with the largely empty crimson-and-gold Metropolitan Opera House, its tiers of box seats wedding caked above each other. In the orchestra level’s center section, scarf-clad director Tom Morris leans over a seat, observing the proceedings intently, while chorus master Donald Palumbo, his punctilious aspect suggesting a suit salesman at a high-end clothing store, paces the aisles.
Baton in hand, conductor David Robertson, clad in a black polo shirt, stands in the pit before his orchestra. In the row behind the soundboard in the center section of the audience sits composer John Adams, a man with a trim white beard and the soft-spoken yet confident demeanor of a tenured academic. The score to his opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” checkered with red post-its, rests on his lap.
Onstage the chorus makes way for a prop man who enters carrying a handgun and an automatic weapon. In the audience, a member of the production team leans over to Adams and whispers, “John, before we do anything, we’re going to have some gunshots.” Adams smiles slightly. “Aimed at you or me?” he asks.
The question Adams poses is meant to be witty, yet there’s a grim sort of truth behind it. For ever since “Klinghoffer” opened in Brussels and Brooklyn in 1991 to admittedly mixed reviews, Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, have found themselves the targets of vitriolic attacks, which claim that, in contextualizing and humanizing the Palestinian hijackers who murdered the wheelchair bound, Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, they created a profoundly misguided and anti-Semitic work. In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, the Massachusetts-born Adams — whose other operas include “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” both of which have been performed in recent years at the Met, and who won a Pulitzer Prize for music he composed memorializing the victims of 9/11 — asserted that he has been put on a blacklist by the United States Department of Homeland Security. Goodman, who was born Jewish in Minnesota but converted to Christianity while writing this opera and now serves as a reverend in England, hasn’t written a libretto for a major opera since “Klinghoffer.” She drives a car with a bumper sticker asking WTFWJD (“What the F–k Would Jesus Do?), and told me over the phone that her commissions just about disappeared after “Klinghoffer.”
“Operas don’t just get written; they have to be produced,” Goodman said. “And producing an opera requires an opera house and singers and quite a lot of money. There was no chance of anything with me as a librettist being commissioned after ‘Klinghoffer.’ When I was writing it, I had this sense that I had never written anything this good and I had this juvenile sort of thought that now, everyone would want me to write more libretti. What I should have thought was that, if this is the last thing I write, it will be all right. I can hang up my typewriter with this being the last thing I’ve done.”
More than 20 years later, the controversy persists, now comprising public gatherings, letter-writing campaigns and social media initiatives that aim to shutter the Met’s “Klinghoffer” production. When the opera was performed in 2012 in London by the English National Opera, few objections were heard, just those of a lone protester carrying a sign. New York is not quite as subtle a place, and, now that the opera has received the imprimatur of the Met, protests have become considerably more vocal.
Judea Pearl, father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, wrote in a statement delivered at one recent anti-“Klinghoffer” protest, “choreographing an operatic drama around criminal pathology is not an artistic prerogative, but a blatant betrayal of public trust. We do not stage operas for rapists and child molesters, and we do not compose symphonies for penetrating the minds of ISIS executioners.”
In June, after meeting with Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, citing concerns about rising anti-Semitism, announced that the opera would go on as scheduled but that he would scrub plans for a video simulcast in movie theaters around the globe. “I don’t regret it,” Gelb told me later. “I thought it was the right thing do to.”
Still, this compromise irritated many of the opera’s supporters while satisfying few of its detractors: Former CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who once said that his mother would have called playwright Tony Kushner a “Kapo,” declared that protests would continue “until the set is burned to the ground.” For a blast from the past and the so-called “Culture Wars,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani will lead the opening night protest. A brief synopsis of the opera in The New York Times notes that “opening night will go on as planned, but there are concerns that the performance will be disrupted.”
“These protests have a chilling effect on me, because I’m a very proud Jew and I grew up believing that part of the Jewish tradition and heritage is to have intellectual curiosity and to understand the world around us,” said Gelb, who had his own experiences with terrorism, albeit in a very different context. Gelb started out as an office boy working for an American impresario, Sol Hurok, whose office was attacked in 1972 by members of the Jewish Defense League for presenting Russian performers while Jews were being persecuted in the former Soviet Union. One woman was killed during the fire-bombing, and Gelb was working there at the time.
“When I went to Sunday school when I was 11 or 12 years old, I remember a rabbi who said, ‘We should not go to bed at night without having learned one new thing every day,’” Gelb said. “What’s so disturbing and chilling is the reaction from people who have never seen this opera, who have taken the words of terrorists out of context. For people to call me a self-hating Jew is so ludicrous that it’s beyond chilling. It’s outrageous and unfair. I’m being victimized and being attacked, but it hasn’t lessened my resolve. To bow under unfair pressure is not something I would do.”
Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, have written a letter that will be included in the Met’s playbill, asserting that the opera “presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
“One of the sadnesses about the opera, and there are sadnesses as well as joys,” says Morris, who also directed the English National Opera’s production in 2012, tells me later, “is that Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters have become estranged from it as a work of art. Initially they were not, and I am profoundly respectful of their feelings about it. If they say that the very idea of this opera aggravates the grief they feel for the loss of their father, I can’t argue with that, I have to respect that. My wish would be that they would come and see that there is an extraordinary respect for the characters based on their parents.”
“I love this woman in a way,” Michaela Martens said of Marilyn Klinghoffer, the role she plays onstage at the Met and also performed in the English National Opera production. “I love her strength and I love her resilience and her backbone and her humor, and the fact that I get to walk in her shoes for a few hours is an honor. But it’s been exhausting.”
So, why all the fuss about this opera? Well, there’s the fact that it gives significant stage time to hijackers’ grievances while performing the arguably invasive act of showing the murder of an innocent man and the grief of his cancer-stricken wife. It should be noted, though, that Adams’s and Goodman’s “Klinghoffer” isn’t the only dramatic rendition of this topic to depict Leon Klinghoffer’s murder or to give voice to the Achille Lauro’s hijackers. The crime spawned two forgettable and somewhat cheesy TV movies in the late 1980s and early ’90s, one starring Karl Malden as Leon Klinghoffer, the other featuring Burt Lancaster in the same role. Much attention has been paid to individual lines in the opera, such as one uttered by a hijacker nicknamed Rambo: “Wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews growing fat.” But attributing authorial intention to vile words spoken by a psychotic character seems specious at best.
Does the opera, as some protesters have contended, idealize terrorism or condone murder? Of course not. If anything, it seems to be an impassioned and perhaps naive plea for dialogue and mutual understanding. “I think if you could talk like this sitting among your enemies, peace would come,” the captain tells one of the hijackers, who responds: “The day that I and my enemy sit peacefully, each putting his case and working towards peace, that day our hope dies. And I shall die, too.”
According to Gelb, “Somebody who looks at this objectively understands that all the opera does is try to explain the motives of the terrorists so that we understand the terrible crimes they committed.”
Are the opera’s creators anti-Semitic? Probably not, but unless you’re intimately acquainted with them, I have no idea how you could prove it.
Is the opera itself anti-Semitic? To my mind, it isn’t, but even if you could demonstrate that it was, then you’d have to start getting into another argument about censoring the works of T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound, and I don’t think that would lead us anywhere productive. It is interesting to note that Alice Goodman, whose libretto is the subject of such controversy, actually withdrew from working on John Adams’s opera “Doctor Atomic” about J. Robert Oppenheimer because she thought the original, ultimately-rejected concept, which presented Oppenheimer as Faust, was, in fact, anti-Semitic. “There’s no way you can tell that story with Oppenheimer as Faust and not have it be anti-Semitic,” Goodman told me.
At any rate, these simplistic questions are the wrong ones to be asking. Answers are not quite as easy to come by when more nuanced questions are posed, such as, “Does presenting this story against the backdrop of the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian struggle for statehood offer a political motivation for Klinghoffer’s murder?” Well, yes. Goodman herself attributes the “Klinghoffer” protests to what she calls “the agony within American Judaism right now.”
“A lot of things that were never uttered in my childhood are being questioned, which is partly related to the left in Israel being so weak and so suppressed right now,” Goodman said. “When I was a kid, one never doubted that whatever the government of Israel did was right and necessary.”
Another question: The opera’s title — suggested by its first director, Peter Sellars, who reportedly thought the opera was too tough on the hijackers — implies that Klinghoffer was a martyr; if so, then exactly whose sins do the authors suppose Klinghoffer died for? Two scenes in the opera seem worth mentioning.
Onstage at the dress rehearsal for the first act of “Klinghoffer,” the words of the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians differ markedly from those sung by the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The Palestinians sing hauntingly of being displaced from their homes and seeking revenge (“My father’s house was razed in 1948”); the Jews’ words are considerably more elliptical (“Let us, when our lust is exhausted for the day, recount to each other all we endured since we parted”). In Morris’s staging, the Palestinians sing amid seemingly barren surroundings; the Jews plant trees as if nurturing a soon-to-be flourishing society. All the while, on a backlit screen, years flash by, citing periods of conflict in Israel — 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and so on, until we reach 2014, when the Palestinian chorus’s anger and frustration have risen to such a point that one character dashes across the stage, carrying a green flag. The nationalistic moment perhaps unwittingly recalls the waving of the tricolor in “Les Misérables.”
This scene gives way to a meeting of survivors of the Achille Lauro hijacking, whose memories guide the opera’s action. Morris provides this framing device in order to set the opera in the present day, making it more contemporary and relevant. He compares this literary conceit to one employed in Herman Melville’s works, wherein sea captains and sailors recall horrific tragedies. And yet, the idea of survivors sharing recollections of a traumatic, anti-Semitic incident can’t help but bring to mind a meeting of Holocaust survivors. And, if the opera is claiming a historical motivation for the crime that took place aboard the Achille Lauro, by extrapolation, can it be said to be making the same sort of argument about the Holocaust? At which point, one wonders if there isn’t at least some truth to what protesters have been claiming — that on some level, Jews are depicted as being somehow responsible for the crimes against them.
In the orchestra pit, Robertson drops his hands and addresses the musicians and cast: “We’re going to take a short break.”
That evening, across 64th Street in Manhattan’s Walter Reade Theater, one of the art house cinemas affiliated with Lincoln Center, a different sort of rehearsal takes place. The audience is three-quarters full, but this isn’t a cinephile crowd; in fact, on the way over I overheard four people asking for directions. Attire here is business casual; the mood solemn. Leaning against the Walter Reade’s movie screen are about half a dozen placards: “Opera Justifies Attacks”; “Shame on You, Peter Gelb”; “Gelb, Are You Taking Terror $$$?”
The occasion is a teach-in organized by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy: “‘The Death of Klinghoffer’: The Normalization of Antisemitism.” A man hands out fliers promoting a planned “100 Wheelchair Caravan” on opening night — people in wheelchairs will protest the Met’s production and pay tribute to the memory of Leon Klinghoffer. The woman seated next to me in the back row asks a question of the man with the fliers: “Are they planning on having more wheelchair protests for subsequent performances?”
“No,” he says. “We don’t have enough wheelchairs for the first one yet.”
Lawrence Benenson, chair of ISGAP’s executive committee, steps up to a podium and speaks into a microphone. “It’s unfortunate that we are here tonight,” he says. “We’re still fighting anti-Semitism in 2014.”
Introductory remarks give way to speeches and a panel discussion, in which passionate and reasoned debate vies for supremacy with ill-informed jeremiads. Charles Asher Small, ISGAP’s executive director, measured but firm in his speech, invokes the language of the civil rights movement while drawing a direct line from the writings of Edward Said and Michel Foucault to what he sees as the message of a false sense of equivalence that informs “Klinghoffer.” The estimable professor and writer Phyllis Chesler, author of the Jewish Book Award-winning memoir “An American Bride in Kabul” and a self-proclaimed opera fan, suggests that it’s peculiar for Adams and Goodman to have written nuanced characterizations in an opera, a genre not known for its subtlety. And she further asserts that the weight of “Klinghoffer” is tipped unfairly towards the terrorists: Twelve arias are sung by the victimizers; their victims sing only five. The opera is “not even-handed,” Chesler says. “The villains have more lines.”
Commentary writer Jonathan Tobin, who has written extensively about the opera, places “Klinghoffer” in the context of leftist views that have taken hold in academic circles. The Israel Project senior adviser Omri Ceren assays a comparison between “Klinghoffer” and Andres Serrano’s purportedly blasphemous “Piss Christ.” Theater artist Dahn Hiuni faults the opera for allowing the terrorists’ words to be sung. “People like people who sing,” he says. “We are sympathetic to people who sing.” South Sudanese human rights activist Simon Deng asks rhetorically: “How can you make fun of an innocent person being murdered? Are you with the murderers or the terrorists?” Though he admits to never having seen the opera, he dismisses it as “sheer rubbish.”
As the evening wears on and the rhetoric becomes considerably fierier, one feels a desire to draw parallels between the “Klinghoffer” rehearsal at the Met and the teach-in at the Walter Reade. But tempting though that may be, it would be nevertheless glib and inaccurate, setting up the very sort of false equivalences of which Adams and Goodman have been accused. For while both the opera’s creators and its foes display great passion, certainty and intractability, some of the protesters sacrifice sophistication for sophistry, and their arguments for attacking the opera seem to have little to do with the work itself. Whatever the flaws of “The Death of Klinghoffer” may be, however naive or reductive one may accuse its politics and sense of history of being, it is nevertheless a deeply serious and ruminative work by gifted artists that does not deserve to be likened to “snuff films” and “pornography,” as one speaker claimed.
And if Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (identified in ISGAP’s flier as “America’s Rabbi”) is correct in saying that the opera “glamorizes [murder] for people’s entertainment” and “puts fun above doing the right thing,” then he has very different definitions of “fun” and “entertainment” than the ones I know. One of the evening’s last speakers, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, concludes on a foreboding note, declaring that even canceling the Met’s production of “Klinghoffer” would be insufficient, and he would rather “make sure that no opera house will ever show this opera again.” Perhaps the speech is meant to be galvanizing; I find it harrowing.
On the way out of the event, I catch sight of Tom Morris, who has been watching the proceedings with a quiet, vaguely bemused air. He says he’d like to catch up with Small, who spoke at the event, but the moment doesn’t present itself.
“The interesting thing is that the organization running the event is a sort of unimpeachable, worthy organization that is rightly concerned about some very real things, rightly vigilant about the dangers of any sort of prejudicial discourse, anti-Semitism in particular,” Morris tells me later. “Wise, passionate, genuine and virtuous people are picking random tools to achieve their aims. Unfortunately, the tool that they’ve picked is an opera they don’t understand.”
According to Alice Goodman, “The groups that are protesting throw gasoline on the fire very rapidly and they have only two magic words, which they use to produce an immediate reaction. One is ‘anti-Semite,’ the other is ‘terror.’ They are evacuating both these words of meaning by their overuse.”
The argument seems intractable then: a group of talented, high-minded, if perhaps naive, theater artists on one side, a group of impassioned and well-meaning, if not always particularly well-informed, protesters on the other. Neither seems wholly capable of viewing the conflict through the other’s eyes. It seems, if one dares to say it, like material for a terrific opera. But, as in every opera, someone must be given the last word. In “The Death of Klinghoffer,” that last word goes to the character of Marilyn Klinghoffer, who grieves for her murdered husband in a heart-wrenching aria. So it seems only appropriate to give it here to Michaela Martens, the performer who portrays her, and who best sums up my own sentiments about the opera.
“I don’t think that Leon Klinghoffer’s death is something that should be forgotten, and it’s not pleasant to revisit it, and yet I think his death should not have been in vain,” Martens told me. “When this opera comes up every two or three years, this discussion needs to happen. This man died a horrific death, and we need to remember this person. At the end of the opera, the whole audience is sobbing. You cry for the Klinghoffers, you cry for the whole situation. The opera gives us permission to grieve.”
Adam Langer is the Forward’s arts and culture editor. His most recent novel is “The Salinger Contract.”