"There is no such thing as unpolitical art"

Alice Goodman, librettist of "The Death of Klinghoffer", discusses the controversial opera

How did you and John Adam come to choose the hijacking of the Achille Lauro as a subject for an opera?
Peter Sellars actually came up with the idea when we were all together in New York in 1986 for a works-in-progress workshop on Nixon In China. People were asking what our next opera would be, and Peter immediately suggested Klinghoffer. John and I could immediately see that it would work - it was about the right size and shape for an opera and there was an interesting sense of dramatic action being confined - but everyone else who was there thought it was a joke in poor taste.

Why write an opera about it?
The aim was to go to the places where the news reports can't go, to explore the events at a depth, and with an emotional engagement that you don't get on the news - the same reasons that art looks at life generally.
Opera is such an amazing art form. I've been thinking recently about the Lucian Freud exhibition; if I could paint like Freud I think I would still rather write this story as an opera than paint it. The opera is giving me more than myself, it's the polyphony you get from a composer, director, designer, singers and a librettist all bringing something to the work.

Do you believe all art has a duty to politics?
Art has a duty to the political rather than to politics. I'm of an age to have grown up with the notion that there is no such thing as unpolitical art, that when art is escapist that that too is political.

"Contemplative" is a word that's been used a lot by John Adams about the opera, which is in many respects anti-operatic, anti-dramatic... How did you come to take the Bach Passions as a model instead of a more conventional operatic structure?
My first stab at the libretto was much more dramatic than the final draft. That initial version is no longer in existence; it felt cartoonish and unserious. It was as though we could only deal with the situation by being contemplative. I tried not to be, but that was the only thing that worked.

That abstraction was reflected in Peter Sellars' original production...
Yes, that kind of design frees up the realistic elements, helps them to stand out. It's rather like when you have a bright colour against a neutral; when you have an abstract staging and someone sings something that's very colloquial, earthy, human - something that's incredibly concrete - it will stand out more.

Since you wrote Klinghoffer the political situation in the Middle East has changed rather dramatically. How does this affect the work?
Difference in opera now as we watch it, the opera as you conceived it..

John was actually recording Klinghoffer at Abbey Road on 9/11. They had just finished Klinghoffer's final aria when they were told the news. Hearing those words after that - "If a hundred people were murdered and their blood flowed in the wake of this ship like oil, only then would the world intervene" - felt like a terrible prediction.

Klinghoffer was written during the First Intifada in Palestine. At that time the assumption was that if there was a hijacking it was because the hijackers wanted something, that they could be negotiated with. The idea of suicide bombing was then almost exclusively confined to Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers. The opera's whole exploration of the desire for death and martyrdom was actually anachronistic. It's the way things are now, but it's not the way that things were then.

If you were writing it today in light of that change would you write differently?
If I were coming to write it again today the changes I would make would be principally technical ones, not philosophical and certainly not political ones. This current English National opera production has a somewhat improved libretto; things that were emotionally vague have been made clear.

One of the opera's original co-commissioners was Glyndebourne, who have never yet staged the work. Do you know why?
I really don't know why, but I'm pleased that it is finally being performed in England, and I'm especially delighted that it's in London. There is a feeling here of cultural conversation, of a dialectic in which people can talk and not necessarily have to agree.

Given the recent disruption at last summer's Proms it seems like a sensitive time to be staging the work...
It's always a sensitive time. I hope it will be received well, and I would be very surprised if there were a disruption. The worst we've ever had were a few pickets, although Penny Woolcock [director of the film adaptation] wasn't able to show her film at a festival in Palestine in 2005. The film was perceived as being pro-Israel, or at least pro-Jewish, and she was encouraged to leave Gaza very quickly.

So Klinghoffer has been attacked as both pro-Jewish and pro-Palestinian?
I know. It pleases me so much to have had that disapproval from both sides, it sort of makes me feel that I must be doing something right.

Were you conscious of trying to be even-handed in your presentation of events?
It's not even-handed - it just looks at everybody as a person. People think that I'm making Mr Klinghoffer stand for the entire Jewish people and the policies of the Israeli Defence Forces. I'm not, but the fact is that as an individual human being you find yourself repeatedly being identified as representative. John and I joke that our favourite line is the opera is "America is one big Jew" - not so much because it wraps up the whole idea of a manifest destiny and a chosen people and a new Israel, but also because it is all that while at the same time being so brief and so pithily offensive. John suggested it for the poster for ENO...

Following the cancellation of a performance of Klinghoffer in Boston, musicologist Richard Taruskin wrote an article for the New York Times praising the decision, citing the fact that "art can inflict harm". How do you feel about this?

If art can do good then art is not innocuous. I think what Taruskin is demanding is both censorship and propaganda. The kind of art that he sees and wants predicates a kind of world I wouldn't want to live in. He believes that a work like Klinghoffer shouldn't be produced because the hijackers are allowed to be eloquent - because they are young and have a romantic sense of their nation, their sufferings and their mission. He believes that this is a depiction which is too dangerous for the world to seer to see. For him, all art that is produced must be art in which our nations foes are seen as lifeless, ugly, and inarticulate, and our nation's martyrs are are seen to radiate every form of beauty. A world in which art is like that can't contain me, but more importantly it can't contain Shakespeare. It's kitsch, and demands such obtuseness of the human beings that are the audience of that art.

Alexandra Coghlan's article on classical music and politics appears in this week's New Statesman.

"The Death of Klinghoffer" opens this Saturday at the ENO

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage