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for its consciously even-handed approach in documenting both the events on board the Achille Lauro and the historical content of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism