In October 1985, four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front seized a cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Egypt. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, the hijackers demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then held in Israeli prisons. They failed to achieve their demands. But, in a vicious and seemingly inexplicable act, the hijackers murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, wheelchair-bound Jewish-American businessman, shooting him in the forehead and chest, then forcing the ship’s barber and a waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard.
The seizure of the Achille Lauro, and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, may not seem an inspiring source for a work of art, let alone an opera. But John Adams is no ordinary composer. One of the leading minimalist composers of our age, his work has often tackled contemporary politics and controversial issues. His first opera, Nixon in China, explored the mythic qualities of US president’s historic 1972 meeting with Chairman Mao.
The Death of Klinghoffer, on which Adams worked with his long-time collaborators librettist Alice Goodman and theatre director Peter Sellars, debuted in 1991. And from the beginning it was mired in controversy, the opera’s critics charging it with being anti-Semitic, glamourising terrorism and humanizing terrorists.
Last month the New York Metropolitan Opera finally staged the work for the first time – and discovered that none of the fury had dissipated. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the opera house on the opening night with placards declaring ‘The Met Opera Glorifies Terrorism’ and ‘No Tenors for Terror’. A leaflet from the Zionist Organization of America described the opera as ‘anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-gay & anti-Western world’. Former mayor of New York, Rudi Giuliani, joined the protestors, insisting that the opera ‘supports terrorism’. The opera, insisted Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, in a piece they wrote for the programme, ‘perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.’
The Met did not bow to demands to drop the production but it did, under pressure from the Anti Defamation League, cancel global simulcasts to cinemas, so that only those actually in the Met could view the production. The message seemed to be: if you can afford to pay $100 upwards for a ticket, we can trust you to watch the opera, but it’s too incendiary for the masses who must be excluded. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of free expression.
Even many of those usually supportive of free speech have been sympathetic to these concerns, uneasy about turning a hideous act into a piece of entertainment, worried about the alleged anti-Semitism. In fact the debate about The Death of Klinghoffer, and the demands for censorship, strikingly echo many previous controversies from The Satanic Verses onwards. And the arguments in defence of the opera are little different than they were in the case of Salman Rushdie’s novel.
‘This is not art’, claimed Jeffrey Wiesenfeld who led the anti-Klinghoffer rally. ‘This is crap. This is detritus. This is garbage’. (Wiesenfeld, incidentally, has form: he was the leading figure in the 2011 campaign to deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree from the City University of New York, on the grounds of Kushner’s criticism of Israel and alleged ‘anti-Semitism’.) ‘This opera’, claimed the international Jewish organization B’nai B’rith, ‘crosses a line of artistic expression and promotes an offensive position’. The Met’s decision to stage the opera ‘gives this anti-Semitic piece a large public platform.’
Compare this to Shabir Akhtar’s view of The Satanic Verses. Akhtar was a Cambridge-trained philosopher who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques at the height of the controversy over Rushdie’s novel. ‘There is all the difference in the world’, he claimed, between ‘sound historical criticism that is legitimate and ought to be taken seriously and scurrilous imaginative writing which should be resolutely rejected and withdrawn from public circulation’. The real debate, Akhtar declared, was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander.’ The novel was nothing more than an ‘inferior piece of hate literature’.
The demands for the cancellation of The Death of Klinghoffer are no more valid than the arguments for the pulping of The Satanic Verses. This is not to say that there are no artistic issues or political problems with the opera. But they are not as the critics see them. And even if they were, it would still be no argument for censorship, any more than had The Satanic Verses been ‘scurrilous writing’, that should have been cause to ban it.
Far from ‘glamourising terror’, as the critics claim, Adams’ opera presents the killing of Klinghoffer as a sordid, despicable act. As for ‘humanising the terrorists’, well, the hijackers were human. It is telling that for many the treatment of some humans as human beings is somehow to cross a moral line.
What The Death of Klinghoffer does is not merely dismiss Klinghoffer’s killing as merely an act of ‘evil’ about which there is nothing more to be said, but attempts to understand the actions of the hijackers within a broader context, primarily, of course, that of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The opera opens with two choruses, ‘The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ and the ‘Chorus of Exiled Jews’. The two choruses are musically striking, and strikingly different.
My father’s house was razed
When the Israelis passed
Over our street…
Of that house, not a wall
In which a bird might nest
Was left to stand. Israel
Laid all to waste.
So begins the Palestinian chorus. ‘Let the supplanter look / Upon his work. Our faith / Will take the stones he broke / And break his teeth’, it concludes.
Here, in the first lines of the opera, Adams and Goodman lay out both the context and the cause of terrorism, as they see it. There is, in their eyes, a direct line that runs from the Nakba, the mass exodus (and expulsion) of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, to the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. The Nakba describes a real historical event (though one whose meaning and significance is contested), the suffering of the Palestinian people that followed was immense, and its historical importance in shaping the Israel-Palestine struggle undeniable. In The Death of Klinghoffer, however, it appears more as a kind of creation myth than as a historical moment, the point from which a terrible new world was launched, and from which all subsequent Palestinian history flows.
Where the Palestinian chorus is jagged, brooding and angry in tone, the Jewish chorus is more intimate, soothing and lyrical. It begins with the arrival of Jews in Israel:
When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left,
and, of course, no luggage. My empty hands shall
signify this passion, which itself remembers.
The Jewish Exiles (who are not exiles but seemingly ending their ‘exile’ in a new homeland), plant trees and watch their desert bloom.
The contrast between the two opening choruses winds its way right through the opera. Jews appear to be a people unburdened by history (‘and, of course, no luggage’), a strange view of a people upon whom history bears particularly strongly. Palestinians, on the other hand, are seen as a people trapped in a world of unending struggle, driven by their history and creation myth to commit brutal acts of horror. The Death of Klinghoffer, the musicologist Robert Fink has observed, ‘attempts to counterpoise to terror’s deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.’ But in turning a brutal, vicious, indefensible attack into a symbol of a people’s struggle, and one driven by noble ideals, The Death of Klinghoffer not only simplifies a complex conflict but also implicitly questions that struggle and those ideals.
The consequence is a work that, as Adam Shatz observes, far from being anti-Semitic, if anything caricatures the Palestinian struggle. The Palestinians are presented as an undifferentiated lump, seemingly driven by religion and hatred and victimhood. The hijackers casually denigrate Jews (‘Wherever poor men / Are gathered they can / Find Jews getting fat. / You know how to cheat / The simple, exploit / the virgin, pollute / Where you have exploited, /Defame those you cheated, /And break your own law / With idolatry’, says one of the hijackers, adding that ‘America / Is one big Jew’), as if anti-Semitism is the inevitable product of the struggle for Palestinian freedom. They talk in religious tones of martyrdom, and, in the Met production, wave the green flag of Hamas rather than the national flag of Palestine. The result is to transform the Israeli-Palestinian struggle into a religious conflict, an element in a primordial clash of civilizations.
To discuss all this is to enter, of course, difficult, contested terrain. It is inevitable that a work such as The Death of Klinghoffer will oversimplify, stylize, even caricature. It is, after all, an opera, not a political tract, nor even a novel. Operas work best at the level not of analysis but of myth and archetype, of sentiment and passion
But while The Death of Klinghoffer is questionable as historical analysis, there is little question about its significance as an opera. Many of its weaknesses as an opera derive precisely from trying too hard to analyse history. Adam’s score is at times brooding, at times thrilling, at times quite beautiful. As a work of theatre, it is moving. It is also challenging, asking us to shift our perspective, to think afresh about the issues.
It is often the case with a work of art that what may appear simple and stylized on the surface can reveal complexity beneath. To expose that complexity requires us to engage with it, to allow ourselves to be challenged, to be open to changing perspectives. And that is what the would-be censors, whether of The Satanic Verses or of The Death of Klinghoffer, refuse to do. They rebuff any engagement, reject any challenge, abhor the possibility of new perspectives. And in so doing they deny the saving grace of art.
Human beings, Salman Rushdie observed in his 1990 essay ‘In Good Faith’, written in answer to his critics, and while in hiding, ‘understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.’ That is as true now as it was then. What it demands of us is that we engage in argument, be open to challenge, be willing to listen to that which we may deem unsayable.
The photos are from New York Metropolitan Opera.