When the Death of Klinghoffer was first performed in New York in 1991, John Adams’s opera generated little protest and little acclaim. It was largely viewed, even by the organs of the country’s media establishment, as more of a provocation on the part of its then notorious director, Peter Sellars, than as a serious contribution to the standard opera repertory—let alone as a new American masterpiece.
Things had changed by the time The Death of Klinghoffer, whose plot revolves around the real-life hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and the murder of a 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American Jew, received its next major production in New York this past October.
The opera’s premiere performance at the Metropolitan Opera was the focus of noisy protests for months. The normally fractious Jewish community seemed to have found rare unanimity in being uncomfortable with the opera’s being staged at all, especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism, because of its explicit moral equivalence between the gruesome murder of an elderly American Jew and the condition of the Palestinians.
But fortunately for the Met, both musical and political fashions changed after 1991. Adams’s use of “minimalism”—a school of late-20th-century classical music featuring the constant repetition of a limited number of notes—had been embraced by the musical world in the intervening two decades. His reputation had soared, and, as a result, The Death of Klinghoffer was considered an important, maybe even a great, work whose controversial subject matter only enhanced its artistic appeal.
Even more important, opinion-makers and critics in 2014 had grown entirely comfortable with its portrayal of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis and Jews. In England, where the Met production was originally staged in 2012, the entire cultural establishment had long since lost whatever sympathy it might have had for Israel’s tenuous position and had become uninterested in the dangers of anti-Semitism. Among the cognoscenti in the United States, the idea that Palestinian terrorism is an understandable (if tragic) response to Israeli and Jewish oppression—and that terrorism against the United States often has a similar root—has come to seem far more reasonable than it was in 1991 and than anyone would have expected only 13 years after the attacks of September 11.
The result of this confluence of trends was that the Met premiere turned out to be a triumph for both the opera house and the opera. Klinghoffer received wild applause from the opening-night audience and those that followed as well as raves from critics in publications, such as the New York Times,that had given it the back of the hand in 1991. Though a few donors withdrew their support from the Met, most, including all its board members (among them several prominent Jewish philanthropists), did not stop funding the company. And so, rather than damaging an arts institution that was already in deep financial trouble heading into the 2014–15 season, the furor allowed the Met and its beleaguered general manager, Peter Gelb, to pose as defenders of artistic freedom against a mob of Jewish philistines whose sensibilities about the subject matter were seen as clashing with the views of most liberal New Yorkers.
Throughout the decision to stage Klinghoffer had been made years in advance, as is usual with any international opera company, the piece’s detractors began to speak up only after the Met announced its 2014–15 season schedule in February 2014. Given that the opera had been produced in 20 venues around the world to generally good notices since its 1991 appearance in Brooklyn, the Met’s leadership seemed to assume that this opera’s production in the world’s leading Jewish city (outside of Israel) would not cause much fuss.
After all, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, fresh in the minds of audiences when the opera was written, had taken place nearly 30 years earlier. At the time, the ship’s seizure by a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization seemed a new low in barbarism. After a lengthy standoff with Italian authorities, the terrorists settled for being allowed to escape—but not before they had separated the Jews from the other passengers and killed Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound, partially paralyzed stroke victim from New Jersey, and then dumped him and his chair overboard. The international revulsion at this act of cruelty was intense. But over the course of the past 29 years, the Achille Lauro incident has been overshadowed by other, more gruesome Palestinian terrorist atrocities as well as the large-scale depredations of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Those who still remember Klinghoffer’s murder as a uniquely repulsive event are in the relative minority in a culture that has begun to treat the 9/11 attacks as ancient history.
That may be why the Met was so unprepared for the initial protests. Gelb, in particular, seemed to have been thrown entirely on the defensive by the demand to back down and cancel the staging of the opera. When the Anti-Defamation League brought its considerable weight to bear against the production, Gelb choose to compromise. ADL head Abe Foxman urged Gelb to consider the impact of broadcasting an opera that contained openly anti-Semitic lines uttered by its protagonists to a world in which a rising tide of Jew-hatred was unmistakable. In response, in June, four months before its premiere, Gelb took Klinghoffer off the list of operas that the Met would transmit on its “Live from the Met” series via radio and high-definition broadcasts shown in movie theaters around the globe—thus reducing its potential audience from many millions to those who choose to attend the eight scheduled performances in the opera house.
That compromise (as well as Gelb’s decision to grant Klinghoffer’s daughters a page in the Met’s program attacking the opera) satisfied no one. John Adams deeply resented the slight to his creation, which would now be deprived of the immense prestige that a Met broadcast bestows on any artist or opera and with it the possibility of a new DVD release. Also outraged by the move was the editorial page of the New York Times, which denounced the pressure on the Met as an infringement of artistic freedom and an attempt to bully innocent artists. Nor did the cancellation of the broadcast satisfy most Jewish groups that still regarded any production of the opera in New York as an intolerable offense. To the surprise of both the Met and perhaps even the ADL, protests against the opera were not confined to right-wing or marginal groups but soon drew the support of a broad cross-section of Jewish organizations, including most liberal and mainstream groups and faith denominations.
The sounding of the battle cry of artistic freedom by the opera’s defenders more or less dictated the arts community’s applause for Klinghoffer. A seemingly solid front of arts critics not only anointed it a masterpiece but also declared the opera innocent on all counts of the charges that had been laid against it. The Wall Street Journal seemed to sum up this consensus when it proclaimed in a particularly didactic headline of its review: “To See Is to Know: This production makes it clear: John Adams’s opera is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. It does not condone terrorism.” But while the artistic community rallied around Adams and the Met, it chose to ignore some serious questions about the piece and its context.
The Death of Klinghoffer has undergone some alterations since it debuted in 1991. The force behind its creation was neither Adams nor the librettist Alice Goodman but the director, Peter Sellars. Then just 33 years old, Sellars was the enfant terrible of American arts, at the height of his notoriety as an iconoclastic destroyer of operatic conventions. The initial production bore all the marks of Sellars’s signature épater-le-bourgeois style, designed to push the buttons of traditional operagoers.
The most notable change from 1991 is the deletion of a key scene—one that followed a chorus of exiled Palestinians singing the only really pretty music in the opera. Originally, this chorus was followed by a tableau in which an obnoxious family of American Jews—the Rumors—watch television and gripe about Palestinians as well as squabbling among themselves. What New York Times critic Edward Rothstein described in his 1991 review as a “bourgeois fricassee” was then followed by a chorus of exiled Jews who sing in a disjointed and spiritless manner about their problems—but provide neither an answer to the Palestinians’ charges nor an equally compelling case for their own claims. The Rumor scene is gone from the Met’s staging.
In the original production, the murder of Klinghoffer—and it is important to note that at no point is his “death” ever referred to as a murder during the course of the opera—happened off stage. At the Met we see the terrorists shoot him. The opera’s defenders see this depiction of the brutal killing as proof that Adams’s and Goodman’s sympathies are not with the terrorists. The current production also does not include any dramatizations of alleged Israeli atrocities, as was the case with a film version of the opera that was released in 2003.
As a result, the opera’s partisans deny that it is guilty of moral equivalence or that it slants the larger argument about anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism toward the terrorists. But even a defense of the piece by Washington Post arts critic Phillip Kennicott in Opera News magazine—a Met house organ that is also the leading periodical on the art form in North America—acknowledges that the competing choruses of the “exiles” make it clear where the audience’s sympathies should lie. Even though he supports the opera against its critics, Kennicott acknowledged that the Palestinians are portrayed in a “humanizing musical language” while the Jews seem like “antiheroic, scattered and pallid representations bogged down in the material world.” The fact that the character of Leon Klinghoffer is allowed a brief moment to excoriate his tormentors and that his wife is given the last word to mourn his passing does not get the opera off the hook for its unbalanced portrait.
Just as Rothstein noted in his original review that the opera featured a “sympathetic evocation of the [first] intifada,” the rock-throwing uprising by West Bank Palestinians against Israel in 1987, the Met’s production is clear in its sympathy for the second such campaign against Israel from 2000 to 2004. One of the major elements of the scenery for the Palestinian backstory scenes is its depiction of Israel’s security fence, which was erected in the West Bank in 2004 to halt a murderous suicide-bombing offensive that took the lives of more thana thousand Jews. In the Met’s staging, the barrier is there as a monument to Jewish cruelty for which other Jews such as Klinghoffer must suffer until their collective sins are expiated—which, if Goodman’s libretto is to be taken seriously, must require the dismantling of Israel even within its pre-1967 borders. Pervading the piece is an assumption that the Palestinians are in the right even if their depredations are not easy to applaud.
Klinghoffer’s musical structure also undermines the attempt to downplay the transparent ideological perspective at its core. The opera is self-consciously styled after the Passions and Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. In these masterpieces, solos (like Mrs. Klinghoffer’s) are always secondary in importance to the choruses, which are the foundations of the musical structures of the overall works. While it is possible to claim that some of the action of this very static opera can be interpreted as showing Palestinian terrorists at their worst, it is the choruses that carry the weight of musical as well as theatrical exposition in the opera. And the choruses leave no doubt as to where we should direct our sympathy.
Its creators have made no secret of their own politics. Adams, whose reputation is now so great in the classical music world that no one even thinks to associate the term avant-garde with him or his creations, is no stranger to his works’ eliciting controversy. In fact, he courts it. His operas Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic dive deeply into political subjects. He also composed a 9/11 requiem titled On the Transmigration of Souls that won him the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Yet even while he profited handsomely from this commemoration, Adams takes a cynical view of the tragedy. In an NPR interview on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, he dismissed the post 9/11 concerns about al-Qaeda as “an orgy of self-pity.” His views about terrorism were, he said, “complex” and rooted in a sense that Americans were insufficiently aware of their own sins. These offensive comments did nothing to derail his popularity in the music world. (But unlike Klinghoffer, it must be said, On the Transmigration of Souls is deeply respectful of its subject matter and provides no rationalization for al-Qaeda.)
The librettist Goodman, who noted in an interview with the Guardian in 2012 that her rejection of a traditional American Jewish upbringing played a role in her part of the creation of Klinghoffer, has further undermined the case for the opera’s balance. Goodman’s conversion from Judaism to Anglicanism was completed during the time she wrote the Klinghoffer libretto. She says her disdain for Zionism and disgust with Jewish nationalism after the Holocaust began in her childhood and ultimately led to her becoming a rector in a Church of England parish. And, she claims with no evidence whatsoever, her once promising librettist career was ended due to the anger of Jewish critics. The American-born Goodman precisely reflects anti-Zionist views that are now commonplace among English elites—the unquestioning acceptance of Palestinian grievances and a belief that Jews do not have rights of their own in their historic homeland. These ideas form the pillars of the libretto as much as Adams’s fascination with Bach’s structures informs the music.
The activities of the Met don’t normally draw much interest outside the musical world, but the protest movement that grew up around the opera’s production drew broad support from much of the pro-Israel and Jewish community. Gelb was by all accounts astonished when confronted by a delegation of Jewish leaders in early September—a meeting that included representatives of umbrella philanthropies and liberal groups rather than merely a gaggle of rabble-rousers.
Though Jews are deeply divided about how to talk about Israel, there seemed to be little debate among those in attendance about the offensive nature of the opera and at what they all seemed to believe was an example of the Met’s bad taste. But as the New York Jewish Week noted in an insider account, the meeting “moved the Klinghoffer story beyond the right flank of the Jewish community, which has been beating the drums against the opera for several months, into the mainstream.” In response, Gelb suggested that the protesters were themselves probably guilty of inciting anti-Semitism because their actions would be represented as proof that Jews control the arts (a classic tactic of Jew-baiters of the past).
Now, it is simply unthinkable that Gelb would say anything remotely comparable to a delegation from another minority community—a black group complaining about the putative racism of Porgy and Bess, for example, or a Native American group disgusted by Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West. The fact that he felt free to do so—to suggest that protesting a work that serious people have long concluded is shot through with anti-Semitic tropes—is in part due to his own Jewish roots. But it is also suggestive of the way in which the ideas animating the opera have now become commonplace in the American cultural community.
The key question for which the opera’s advocates have no answer is whether a similar work about other minority groups or even Americans in general could ever portray the villains so sympathetically and still receive a hearing, let alone the applause of the mainstream artistic community. The Met wouldn’t think of producing an opera rationalizing prejudice against blacks, because there is a consensus that racism is beyond the pale of such discussions and may not be rationalized, let alone justified, even in the name of high art. That same line might once have applied to operas that treat violent Jew-hatred. But the emergence of Klinghoffer as a much-praised staple of the modern operatic repertory shows that this is no longer true.
The prolonged and even exaggerated applause and critical raves that Klinghoffer’s first Met performance received were a daunting rebuke to the broad coalition of Jewish groups that had registered their dismay at the opera. One could argue that this reaction proved that the critics had erred, and that the demonstration outside the Met on the night of the premiere had backfired, because in doing so the critics had elevated the staging into a major cultural moment far more important than it would have been had the entire subject been ignored. Indeed, in an era when pro-Palestinian propaganda in the mainstream media and the arts has become ordinary not only around the globe but also in work produced by left-wing Israelis, it is possible to argue that Klinghoffer isn’t even especially egregious.
Those who protested Klinghoffer hope the grief they gave Gelb and the Met will deter a future Klinghoffer revival in New York and discourage other opera companies from taking it up. But having established that it can be put on without an earthquake from its major donors and can achieve acclaim despite protests that will likely be less noisy in subsequent years, the odds are high that Klinghoffer will return to the Met and perhaps get the broadcast it was denied this time. Other companies have done Klinghoffer elsewhere in North America recently, and those seeking to establish reputations, as defenders of a dubious definition of artistic freedom, will probably repeat the exercise.
Yet in depicting a morally unambiguous event in a morally ambiguous manner, Klinghoffer signals that even the most heinous attacks on Israel or Jews have now become essentially debatable matters. The acceptance of The Death of Klinghoffer and the dismissal of its critics by the mainstream arts media can only be viewed as a terrifying milestone in the history of the treatment of Israel and anti-Semitism.