"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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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.