‘So, you went to see ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,’ right?”
“Can I ask you something?”
That was my mother on the phone. She had been watching a rebroadcast of “Charlie Rose: The Week” where two lawyers, Martin Garbus and Floyd Abrams, were debating the hubbub surrounding the Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s opera. (“Sometimes, people can be so open-minded and holier-than-thou, they make me want to throw up,” my mom said.) The fact that I was talking to my mom back home in Chicago made sense; she was, after all, the person who introduced me to opera, even though it’s the one genre I never really took to.
There was “Carmen” at the Lyric Opera, which I attended with her and my late father when I was 6 (mostly, I remember the gunshot that woke me up and the deep-dish pizza we had after the opera was over). Mom and Dad took me to see Ingmar Bergman’s film adaptation of “The Magic Flute” at the Cinema Theater, and “Don Pasquale,” also at the Lyric (I kind of enjoyed those). And when I was older, and walking around got tougher for my father, I was the one who joined my mother at Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” and Wagner’s “Die Walkure” (I spent one of the intermissions on a quest to find aspirin).
I also accompanied Mom to Northwestern University to attend a ludicrous lecture given by the first director of “Klinghoffer,” former enfant-kinda-terrible Peter Sellars, who said that he liked to update operas by placing them in familiar settings he understood. Which must have been why the Phillips Academy and Harvard-educated Pittsburgh native chose to set “Don Giovanni” in Spanish Harlem.
“What do you want to ask?” I asked my mother.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I was just thinking…”
I’ll deal with my mother’s question in a bit, but now that the Met premiere has passed, now that the protesters have dwindled down to a few dozen diehards, now that people have seemed to abandon interrupting the opera by shouting “Shame!” I actually have some questions of my own. In fact, after sitting through the dress rehearsal; watching the film version; witnessing the protests; reading the libretto; talking with librettist Goodman, current director Tom Morris and Met general manager Peter Gelb, and sitting through the full production, I have wound up with more questions than I started out with. But more important, I think I may have come up with some answers.
Mostly, the opera’s critics, defenders and critic-defenders have focused on a by-now-familiar tale: how wheelchair-bound American Jewish tourist Leon Klinghoffer’s murder has been juxtaposed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that purportedly motivated the terrorists who killed Klinghoffer and threw him into the sea, wheelchair and all. The questions surrounding this narrative — whether this juxtaposition is offensive or appropriate; historically justified or dangerously simplistic; anti-Semitic, anti-Palestinian or philo-Palestinian — have been asked and answered dozens of times. And, to this observer’s eyes, the opera’s sequences that deal directly with this narrative are by far its most effective: the haunting opening chorus offered by the “exiled Palestinians”; the stirring, propulsive “night chorus” that ends Act I and sets up the murder in Act II; the wrenching aria of Marilyn Klinghoffer that concludes the opera.
And we can talk about that opera, debate whether to laud it or burn its set to the ground. But that’s not the opera I saw. Or rather, that’s not the only opera I saw. For, beyond the story of Klinghoffer’s murder and the historical context are elements that don’t really fit. Some of these — static passages, meandering speeches, an unintentionally comical dance sequence, a seemingly off-point recitation of events given by a scantily clad “British dancing girl” can be explained in the context of both this particular production as well as the opera’s evocative and poetic yet also unwieldy libretto. But I found other questions less easy to address. To wit, why do the opera’s Palestinian characters state their grievances so eloquently while the Jewish characters’ historical memories seem both so opaque and so mundane? For an opera so concerned with Palestinian grievances, why is seemingly little attention — apart from some mentions of Allah and the incongruous twang of a sitar — paid to the hijackers’ religion and culture? Put more simply, why does so much of this opera feel so Western? And as for the murder of Klinghoffer himself, why does it have so little dramatic impact? Why does the act seem so ritualized? And what’s up with the halo of light that the murderer, gun drawn, walks toward? Adams has spoken of the symbolic nature of terrorist acts, but exactly what is being symbolized?
The answer seems to have something to do with the librettist, the Rev. Alice Goodman, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity during the course of writing “Klinghoffer.” I spoke over the phone with Goodman, who grew up in a Minnesota family of Forward subscribers and attended Jewish summer camp with sing-alongs led by the late Debbie Friedman, but now speaks a precisely-accented Queen’s English. Goodman cautioned me against reading her personal conversion story into the opera.
“I started ‘Klinghoffer’ Jewish. I was baptized in the middle of writing it, but I don’t think you can tell by reading it or listening to it. No, not at all,” she said.
I’m not so sure. Though I feel reluctant to put the librettist on the psychoanalyst’s couch, since she and her collaborators have put the Klinghoffers onstage, let me take that liberty. For as the opera progressed, I grew more and more convinced that I wasn’t watching a story about Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much as I was watching an opera that used these symbols to tell a Christian conversion story — a tale of moving away from the mundane and earthbound toward the exalted and spiritual. Or, perhaps, that I was simultaneously watching two operas at cross-purposes with each other, one about the Klinghoffers and one about the author’s spiritual progress — from liberal Minnesota Jew to Anglican reverend, perhaps. Leon Klinghoffer’s murder, performed in its stylized way, seemed to me less an actual killing than a form of musical, literary and spiritual patricide.
At the end of the opera, I saw Marilyn Klinghoffer, alone and earthbound, grieving — for her husband, certainly, but also symbolically for the loss of someone who has left one realm for a higher one. John Adams has said that he was influenced by Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which concerns the torture endured by Jesus, and that inspiration seems telling here. As my theater companion, who shall remain nameless, said, unprompted, to me after the final curtain, “Jesus; doesn’t this all seem so f—king Christian?” Maybe, I thought, maybe amid all the ruckus about “Klinghoffer,” everybody (myself included) has been missing a larger story of what this opera’s really about.
Which leads me back to the phone conversation I was having with my mother about the opera.
“So, what was it you were thinking?” I asked her.
“Well, just this,” she said. “What would you think if it were me and Dad who’d been on that ship?”
“You never went on cruises,” I said.
“But what would you think if the opera were about that?” she asked. “About me and dad? Would you want to see an opera about that? Would you write an opera about that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. But as for the librettist of ‘Klinghoffer,’ on a metaphorical level, I wonder if that’s exactly what she did.
Adam Langer is the arts and culture editor of the Forward. His latest novel is “The Salinger Contract.”
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in New York. He has written plays, films, criticism and a memoir, but most of the time, he writes novels.
He is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.”