"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

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.