The End of The Death of Klinghoffer
The opera opens, My fathers house was razed in 1949/when the Israelis passed over our street/the house was built of stone/with a courtyard inside. This is the Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians from John Adams opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. (It is followed by the Chorus of Exiled Jews stateless Holocaust survivors, making their way to Palestine.) The Metropolitan Opera had announced earlier in the year that they would be mounting a new production of The Death of Klinghoffer and including the opera in their popular series of Live in HD broadcasts streamed live to movie theaters worldwide. In a singular act of cowardice, the general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, said the other day that because of the fears the production will stir up anti-Semitism in Europe (and not in the US?) the production will still be mounted, but will not broadcast, either in the live in HD series or in the Saturday afternoon radio programs.
I am shocked and mystified by this decision. First, The Death of Klinghoffer has been surrounded by miasmas of controversy since its premiere in 1991. If you dont want contention and protests, and if you dont want to wade waste deep into the endless morass of Israel and Palestine, you should stick to La Boheme and Carmen. And second, when those protests came, in the form of complaints from the ADL that the opera is anti-Semitic, the Met promptly folded, but in the most annoying way possiblestaging the opera for its New York City audience, presumably sophisticated enough to tell the difference between faux anti-Semitism and the genuine article, while depriving us yokels in the boonies of the right to see the production ourselves and make our own judgments. I am a passionate operagoer, and love the Live in HD broadcasts. Since they started in 2006, I have rarely missed one. I was really looking forward to seeing The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera and that I, and most operagoers have never seen, largely because it has been so rarely produced.
The Death of Klinghoffer is one of three topical operas John Adams wrote in the 1980s and early 1990s. Nixon in China is based on, well, Nixons trip to China in 1972. Doctor Atomic tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. These are controversial topics, but I dont know if Adams and his creative team, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman quite knew what they were getting themselves into when the embarked on opera-izing the Israel-Palestine conflict. For starters, there is absolutely no neutral position, no facts that are agreed upon by all sides, no common ground to stand upon. Adams no doubt thought the opera was emphasizing the two narratives approach to the conflict; two irreconcilable stories, two rights, the meat and potatoes of classic tragedy. (Another modern master, Steve Reich, has taken a similar approach in his multi-media opera, The Cave with Jewish and Palestinian voices telling the story of the Cave of Macpelah, the Cave of the patriarchs.)
This is fine, for me, but it leads to a balancing that inevitably some will find faulty. Is the opera making the case for the moral equivalence, of equating Palestinian terrorism with Jewish suffering? Or does the opera identify the Palestinian cause with that of terrorism, and the killing of innocent civilians? Should the memory of Leon Klinghoffer, ruthlessly murdered by thugs simply because he was Jewish, have been allowed to rest in peace, rather than made the basis of a morality play? Does the opera, in its music, libretto, or staging, subtly favor one side or anotherare the terrorists portrayed too nobly, are the Klinghoffers depicted too unattractively, too much like typical, clueless, ugly American tourists? I dont knowas someone who has had a relative killed by a Palestinian terrorist, I must say that having a terrorist spout off on the sufferings of his people makes me a little queasy. One of the penalties for murdering innocent people in cold blood should be, it seems to me, losing the ability to lecture others on how you have suffered. On the other hand, by giving a terrorist the central Palestinian role in the role, rather than an innocent Palestinian, Adams has directly engaged the actual way the conflict has been fought for decades, less a
matter of arguing about rights, than fighting, figuratively and actually, over charges of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and counter-counter-terrorism.
In the end, I dont have the answers to these questions. What I know is that The Death of Klinghoffer is a great opera, moody, oratorio-like in its powerful choruses, with deliberate echoes of Bachs passions. Is it dramatically fair to both sides? Does it over-simplify the underlying history? Can art bring new and unexpected perspectives on old, overfamiliar controversies? I dont know. I just wish the Metropolitan Opera would have trusted my ability to judge The Death of Klinghoffer myself, and reach my own conclusions.
When it comes to any discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I rarely find myself in entire agreement with anyones views or presentationthere are too many nuances, too many potential pitfalls, too many necessary on the one hand, and on the other hands to make this possible. And I am sure, if the Metropolitan Opera would have trusted my ability to judge The Death of Klinghoffer there would have been things about it that I liked, and things I disagreed with. Any many people, coming from their different perspectives would have felt the same way. I dont think, in the end, that it would have done much, one way or another to increase or decrease anti-Semitism in Europe or America to broadcast The Death of Klinghoffer. Perhaps it could have served as a useful vehicle for discussion. Perhaps not. But the Met, by allowing pressure, Jewish pressure to kill a broadcast of an opera about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has shown us all how not to approach this endless and endlessly controversial topic, by trying to run away from it, and pretend it doesnt exist