Some Thoughts re: The Death of Klinghoffer (John Adams)


The staging of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York opens one more chapter in the new Jewish culture wars. Throwing art and politics and the politics of representation into the mix, the opera scored by composer John Adams reflects upon the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.  It asks us to consider a cruel thing, an act of political murder against the large historical backdrop that is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It tells that history in ways that still make many American Jews distinctly uncomfortable, particularly in relation to the account it makes of the Nakba, i.e. the Palestinian exodus or catastrophe.

Distilling the criticism, I would say that the primary problem some people have, beyond the political morality and the moral politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has to do with what the critics suspect is how the libretto, written by Alice Goodman, and the score to draw a moral equivalence between the humanity of an old man, a husband and father, and the humanity of the man and men who murdered him. I know plenty of American Jews who are having none of it, regardless of what they think about Israel and Israeli politics and policy. On top of that the opera is being staged at a time when a lot of American Jews feel that Israel has been unfairly singled out by critics, when open animus against Israel masks hatred and contempt for the Jewish people writ large. Their protests are marked by the anxious fear and sense of betrayal that this opera represents one more nail in the coffin of liberal public opinion and polite society. Much of the rightwing rage against the opera has clearly been manufactured, but I’ll admit that I am not unsympathetic to some of this protest. Certainly I would feel less ambivalent if it was my father who was shot in a wheelchair and thrown overboard. For a lot of people, it’s that simple. That’s why they won’t forgive the creators or producers of the opera, or the opera itself.

But from what I understand, the opera does not sugarcoat Palestinian rage or romanticize terrorism. Until I see the performance myself I will in the meantime trust Anthony Tommasini’s judgment, published last summer, which you can read here at the NYT. In particular, Tommasini comments about the way Leon Klinghofer is presented in the opera. “Klinghoffer … came across as a decent man bearing up under physical hardships who heroically denounced the hijackers and fired unflinching questions at Mamoud, their leader…, the most conflicted terrorist, though a man steeped in stony hatred.”

This is the same point made by Adams, quoted also in the NYT, which you can read here: “When Klinghoffer finally sings, he sings an aria of absolute indignation. He’s being taunted and abused by this bully that the passengers called ‘Rambo,’ and he fights back. I can’t imagine anybody not identifying with his words. He says: ‘Was it your pal who shot that little girl at the airport in Rome? You would have done the same.’ Or, ‘You pour gasoline over women passengers on the bus to Tel Aviv.’ How could that be construed as making fun of the Klinghoffers?

And it’s the same point made by Alex Ross which you can read here in The New Yorker. Ross notes that Marilyn Klinghoiffer “notably has the last word of the libretto: If a hundred people were murdered/and their blood/flowed in the wake/Of this ship like Oil, only then/would the world intervene./They should have killed me./I wanted to die.” Ross then comments,Anyone who thinks that “Klinghoffer” romanticizes murder probably has not sat through it to the end.

Ross has more to say about the question of anti-Semitism relating to the characterization of Leon Klinghoffer in the play’s libretto. The opera “ventures onto extraordinarily difficult terrain, playing with stereotypes on both sides of the conflict, and no one should be surprised that it remains contentious. It has inspired a meaty debate in critical and scholarly circles, with the musicologist Richard Taruskin leading the prosecution and his colleague Robert Fink mounting a defense. Taruskin, in a 2001 article, charged that, in its original version, the opera catered to “anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois” prejudices—a sitcom-like scene involving a chattering Jewish-American family was later dropped—and that those prejudices remained visible even in the revised version. Fink, in 2005, responded that, in the end, the work celebrates precisely those middle-class values that Taruskin believes it rejects: the “life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.” That two intelligent commentators should reach such radically disparate conclusions points to an abiding problem at the heart of “Klinghoffer”: its pensive, ambivalent attitude toward present-day issues about which a great many people feel no ambivalence whatsoever.

In his recent review of the actual performance, which you can read here in the NYT, Tomasini adds more, with a focus on Marilyn Klinghoffer: “Marilyn has just been told by the captain of the Italian cruise ship on which she had been enjoying a Mediterranean tour with her husband, Leon Klinghoffer, that Leon is dead. He has been shot by Palestinian hijackers, who tossed his body into the sea along with the wheelchair he used. As this horror sinks in, Marilyn erupts at the earnest captain, who had tried to reason with the Palestinians. “You embraced them!” she sings with stinging outrage, as the orchestra breaks into fitful leaps and shrieking chords. Slowly, though, memories come to her of nights at home when the children were out and just she and Leon sat together. “I wouldn’t glance up/From the book on my lap/For hours at a time,” she sings, while the music’s sputtering vocal lines, jagged rhythms and piercing cluster chords gradually settle into a mood of quieter despair. “I knew his face so well / His beautiful smile.

It could be that part of what’s at stake in the protest concerns the aestheticization of violence, but I’m not sure. The trickier question relates how the libretto and score might add human dimension to an act of political murder. But even here, it’s hard to see how the overarching story of historical loss and historical memory sung by the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians is coupled in the libretto with the language of rage and violence that consumes so much of the Palestinian voice in the opera. From what I’ve read, the Palestinian voice is reduced to sounds marked exclusively by either elegiac loss or harsh dissonance, a limited human range indeed. Representing liberal society, the Captain of the ship tries to reason with the leader of the terrorist squad and the killer of Klinghoffer. As per Tomassini, “The Captain replies that if Mamoud could talk like this among his enemies, peace would come. In response, Mr. Allicock’s Mamoud, looking stone-faced, brought chilling calm to the passage that underlines the tragedy of this opera: The day he and his enemies sit peacefully, Mamoud explains, each “putting his case” and working toward peace, is the “day our hope dies,” the day that “I shall die, too.”

The best critical response and pushback here at the Guardian, where 4 New Yorkers were taken to opening night and asked to write out their impressions. Regarding the interruptions during the performance, they make it clear that the booing and applauding, as well as the circus demonstration outside the opera house did not interfere with the performance as much as they added to it, the response in real-time becoming part of the art. Eli Valley, comments: “Sure enough, a guy in a fancy section started shouting “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!” He chanted this over and over, and in such a rhythmic intonation that I thought it was part of the opera, but apparently he was trying to snap us out of the Taliban training tutorial he’d come to sabotage.” As for the protests outside, these two were part of the show. “Watching the kids with signs, I wondered which of these productions — inside the Met or on the street outside — was the real operatic stew of indoctrination and incitement, an intricately choreographed production of paralysis in Palestine. As if to reinforce the point, a cheerful woman was passing out a mock-up of the Met’s playbill, photoshopped with an image from an Isis beheading video.”

This then is art, this then is opera as live, public spectacle. I’m not sure, but it seems as if the opera did more to respect the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, did more to humanize the Jewish and Palestinian experience, and did more to dramatize better the brute reality of the Achille Lauro attack and the murder of Klinghoffer than did the protesters inside and outside the Met, despite their own contribution to that very spectacle.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Some Thoughts re: The Death of Klinghoffer (John Adams)

  1. dms1999 says:

    My take is that the title trumps the text.

    If the libretto reflected clear thinking, the title would be “The Murder of Klinghoffer.”
    The significance of Klinghoffer death was that he was _murdered_. There is no story without his _murder._
    Had he suffered a heart attack — even if on the hijacked ship but unrelated to any actions by the hijackers — we would not be discussing this opera because the opera would be totally different, if it existed at all.
    Seems to me that Adams & Goodman missed a very big point.

Leave a Reply