Giving the Palestinians a voice

<em>The Death of Klinghoffer</em> does not go far enough.

Rarely has an operatic work been more controversial, or split audiences so cleanly down political lines, than John Adams's and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer. Based on the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro -- and the subsequent murder of 69-year-old disabled American Jew Leon Klinghoffer -- the opera first premiered in 1991 to mixed reviews. Klinghoffer has been branded as "anti-Semitic" and "anti-bourgeois" for its consciously even-handed approach in documenting both the events on board the Achille Lauro and the historical content of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This new performance, co-produced by the English National Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera, marks the London premier of Adams' sand Goodman's vision. Tom Morris, co-director of War Horse, brings a moody and modern take to the staging, adding further nuance to the work's historical context with the harsh grey lines of the Wall of Separation that encase and imprison the performers on the stage. Adams's soaring melodies, often modulated in polyharmonic tones reminiscent of the Arab love songs played to the captain by one of the hijackers, provide the perfect accompaniment to Goodman's lyrical prose.

The libretto juxtaposes mythological and Shakespearean undertones with colloquial speech as Goodman switches from depicting exiled Palestinians and Jews to the real-life characters of passengers and hijackers. The plot, too, is fluid and almost timeless; flowing from personal memoir to historical re-enactments and back again with no particular chronology. Michaela Martens's evocative performance as Marilyn Klinghoffer was a tender complement to Christopher Magiera's brusque and professional Captain, with a particularly haunting debut by Clare Presland as the Palestinian woman. Arthur Pita's elegant choreography was particularly effective in the "Aria of the Falling Body", artfully rendering the tragedy of Klinghoffer's body being thrown overboard.

Indeed, if this were any other opera, treating any other subject matter, I could not fault it. And yet what I found troubling about this new staging of Klinghoffer was not the opera itself, but the whiff of controversy that continues to cling to it. Alice Goodman, in a recent interview with the NS, conceded that the main reason Klinghoffer has been the focus of such public outcry is that it "looks at everybody as a person", whether that person be victim or murderer. In a 2001 New York Times article, Richard Taruskin criticised Klinghoffer for "romantically idealising criminals" and "indulging" terrorists. It is this that has so polarised opinion: on the one hand we have those (usually from the right) who say it is anti-Semitic and a glorification of terrorism; while on the other we have those (usually from the left) who defend it for giving a voice to the hijackers and placing them within the historical context of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the two decades since its premier, hardly has the debate gone beyond this simple division.

While I would applaud both Adams and Goodman for their political foresight (not to mention their artistic talents) in attempting to rectify the balance in debating Palestinian and Israeli issues, I would also argue that this work does not go far enough. Yes, there is a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians that is juxtaposed with a Chorus of Exiled Jews; but the Palestinians are portrayed as primitive, angry and destructive, while the Jews are seen peacefully planting trees and building a country. Yes, we are given an insight into the mind of the fictional hijacker Omar, but his dreams of martyrdom and Paradise are an absurd parody of Islamic values, and if anything serve to alienate him from the audience rather than underline his humanity. Ultimately, this production presents a spurious balance between the two sides in this conflict, tapping into contrived and cemented stereotypes of the "Arab terrorist" that do little to contextualise the historical scene or redefine the terms of the debate.

At the time of its premier, Klinghoffer may well have broken ground by daring to show Palestinians as human, in however a diluted form. The fact that over twenty years later we can still regard the attempt to give Palestinians a voice -- beyond that of "terrorists" -- as politically and morally contentious, is troubling in the extreme.

Alexandra Coghlan's essay on classical music and politics appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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