Pathos: Tom Morris’s 2012 production for ENO. Photo: Rex Features
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Those most offended by John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer haven’t seen it

It's a case of knee jerk by proxy, says Nicholas Lezard.

Here we go again: another controversy about The Death of Klinghoffer. This opera, about the murder of a wheelchair-bound passenger on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, has been giving nervous observers conniptions since its composition in 1991 – largely because it gives the Palestinian terrorists who killed Klinghoffer singing roles, and dares to suggest a parallel between the postwar fate of exiled Jews and the postwar fate of Palestinians uprooted by the creation of Israel in 1948. All this is a pity, because in many people’s opinion, including mine, it is the greatest opera of the second half of the 20th century. Its only competition, many also say, is Nixon in China, written by the same team of John Adams (score) and Alice Goodman (libretto).

The interesting, if depressing thing, is that the people who would wish to prevent audiences from seeing Klinghoffer, or companies from performing it, have not only not seen it: they have made a point of not seeing it. Or hearing it. The latest brouhaha has involved the Anti-Defamation League and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met will be staging the work later this year but will not, as it does with other major productions, be simulcasting it in cinemas around the world. Here is what Abraham H Foxman, national director of the ADL in the United States, has to say on the matter: “While I haven’t personally seen the opera, numerous experts on anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict on the ADL staff have, and our objections are based on their analyses and a full reading of the libretto.”

You could say that a self-appointed censor who has not seen the work he wishes to suppress is not doing his job fully; but perhaps he doesn’t have to, for this is how the mind of the self-appointed censor works. I would also query the use of the phrase “full reading”. I think the suggestion is that they read it and gave it their full understanding. Which would suggest they had not read the bits that give eloquent voice to the victims of the terrorists’ outrages – specifically, Klinghoffer and his wife, who has the last, most moving, word.

It is in and around the complexities of individuals caught up in history that Goodman’s two libretti have worked so far (she’d have continued in this vein with her and Adams’s treatment of J Robert Oppen­heimer in Doctor Atomic, but withdrew from that project after a year). It is perhaps unwise of Foxman to use so many weasel words in such a short paragraph when Goodman’s works are masterpieces of poetic concision. I would also query his use of “personally” in this context, which is a very loud leper bell announcing deep stupidity. Could he be said, then, to have seen it impersonally?

People who denounce a work of art without having seen it cannot, under any circumstances, be said to have made up their own mind. More worrying is the role of the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, who is, never mind cutting the potential worldwide audience for Klinghoffer by at least three million (roughly a thousand times its seating capacity), also presiding over an institution on the verge of crisis, trying to cut the pay of his unionised (and non-subsidised) performers while working out how to stop his audiences from dying of old age.

The irony is that it is precisely works such as Klinghoffer which show that opera is an art form capable of wrestling with the modern world; which bring young people to opera even at the risk of offending sensibilities (Melanie Phillips’s, for one; she calls the work an “obscenity”; when I asked her if she’d seen it she told me she’d “read the entire libretto”, which is not exactly the same thing. I love that use of the word “entire”; it comes close to “personally”. And reading the libretto takes up so much less of one’s evening, don’t you find?

The objections to Klinghoffer are bipartite. 1. It traduces the memory of its titular character and his wife. This is the objection raised, loudly and often, by their daughters, and deserves consideration, but no one who has seen the opera will say that the Klinghoffers are treated with anything other than sympathy, respect, dignity and tenderness. 2. It is anti-Semitic, an objection so fatuous that even Gelb – who, Alice Goodman says, “has handled this with incredible stupidity” – doesn’t use it. But the ADL does like a fight, as does the conservative pro-Israel press, and even Goodman’s “apostasy” (born Jewish in Minnesota, she is now an Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire) has been cited against her.

The last staging of Klinghoffer took place at the London Coliseum in 2012. I saw that production. The theatre had feared demonstrations but went ahead anyway. In the end, a lone Hasid stood quietly outside, his poster couched in the bathos-ridden form of the solitary protester. No one in the audience felt moved to anti-Semitism, or rushed to join Hamas, or cursed Israel. Instead, many of them were moved to tears.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Everyone behaved like a total idiot in this week’s Game of Thrones

Jon Snow: the bravest idiot of them all.

This week marks the penultimate episode of the season of Game of Thrones – which usually means death, death and more death. Shock death, bloody death, mass death – you name it, a penultimate episode has brought it. And “Beyond The Wall” brought what is certainly the biggest death yet.

If the episode title didn’t give you a big enough clue as to where the vast majority of this week would be set, the first five seconds give you another hint: the camera pans upwards over Dany’s Dragstone map table to the part where the Wall visibly slices across Westeros, and we jump cut to the snow and ice of the far North, where our ragtag bunch o’ misfits (Jon, Jorah, Gendry, Tormund, The Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros, and a few others along for the ride) are striding out to capture and bring back a zombie to show to the already-zombie-owning Cersei Lannister. If this didn’t already sound like the worst plan in history, remember that we’ve pretty much exclusively seen the army of the dead in, well, a massive fucking army. You don’t often see one undead guy just wondering around on a jolly. Yep. These guys have a death wish.

In these early stages of their venture beyond the Wall, things are still pretty cheerful. Jon and Tormund have a chat which hammers home the message of how refusing to bend the knee is Actually A Bad Thing That Gets Ordinary Men Killed. The rest of the men remind us of their previous alliances and battles, only just avoiding the phrase “Previously, on Game of Thrones”: Gendry argues with the Band of Brothers (Brotherhood without Banners, whatever) over their attempt on his life back in season 3, and Jon and Jorah remind us of their relationships with each other’s families. In fact, the two engage in some classic male bonding through the ancient Game of Thrones practice of Talking About Their Dead Dads. Jon tries (and thankfully fails) to give Jorah his only Valerian steel sword, his one weapon against the dead, because, as mentioned earlier, he’s an absolute idiot.

In a truly joyful scene, Tormund flirts outrageously with The Hound until he bristles:

“You want to suck my dick? Is that it?”
“Dick?”
“Cock.”
“Ah, dick! I like it.”
“I bet you do.”

Then Tormund lists all the things he loves about Brienne of Tarth. Truly, we are too blessed. “How did a mad fucker like you live this long?” Clegane asks. I don’t know, but please say this mad fucker lives a little longer. Seven episodes longer, to be precise. Meanwhile Beric Dondarrion and Jon Snow also engage with some male bonding via the ancient practice of Talking About Their Dead Dads, and also death.

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Dany chat about how stupid (and horny) all the men in her life are.

Heartwarming scenes north of the Wall cannot last. The next hint we get that the plan might not be the best idea is when a fuck-off undead bear appears from the mist and attacks them all. Despite it being several against one, it is an enormous fuck-off undead bear, so it puts up a very good fight, severely maiming Thoros. The bear is only just defeated before Jon and Tormund glimpse a group of about ten undead men and one White Walker moving through the frozen river beneath them. Seems, weird, right, because of how they normally move in one enormous army? “Where’s the rest of them?” Jon asks. “If we wait long enough we’ll find out,” Tormund replies. Ah yes, blindly attack a few zombies and simply decide not to worry about the 10,000 semi-indestructable undead men that are probably hot on their heels. This seems like a great strategy.

Jon kills the White Walker with his sword (thank Jorah later, mate) and all but one of the undead crumble to the ground along with him. They tie up the last remaining one, their new prisoner and proof of the oncoming war. So far, so good. But wait. A distant rumble. The mist parts. Ah, there’s the unending army of the dead! Great work, lads! Gendry, the fastest idiot, leaves his hammer behind and escapes to alert the Wall and Danaerys of the others’ unfortunate fate. The rest all run for their lives, but tens of thousands of zombies soon catch up. They make it across some thin ice, which collapses into water behind them, to a small rock in the river. A small moat of unstable ice is all that separates them from a horrific number of undead men, who surround them on all sides in a perfect circle. This is fine. Everything is fine.

Hours pass as Gendry just about makes it to the Wall. The Hound, bored and scared and frustrated, kicks an undead and they all seem to feel it – add to the list of Things That Are Creepy About The Undead. Thoros freezes to death in the snow, because apparently the dicks with fire swords didn’t feel the need to keep him warm. “We’ll all freeze soon, and so will the water,” Jorah says – and suggests that they try and kill the White Walkers to kill the rest of the undead. Jon is all like Nooooo we need to keep one undead man semi-alive, wildly underestimating the extent of the danger they are in. Apparently he just can’t see the enormous army about to kill him?

More hours pass as word reaches Daenerys at Dragonstone (apparently Raven Speed has massively been upgraded in the past few weeks). Tyrion tries to persuade Dany not to hop on a dragon and fly beyond the Wall because she “can’t take the Iron throne” if she’s dead. She’s also not going to have a great time sitting on it if the entire world is overrun by an army of the dead, though, is she mate. This is absolutely terrible advice. “Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do,” he says, irritatingly.

Anyway. It’s very cold and boring over on Surrounded-By-A-Million-Zombies-Island, so Sandor Fucking Idiot Clegane decides he will play a fun game of “skipping stones on the newly-frozen over ice to alert the undead that we are sat here defenceless and they can walk over here and kill us any time they fancy”. As a result, the undead realise that our men are sat there defenceless and that they can walk over and kill them any time they fancy. They rush at them.

This kick-starts one of the scariest battles in Game of Thrones history as Jon and co try to fend off the thousands of zombies attacking them. To put it quite simply: they have absolutely no chance. They are attacked from all sides, lose several men, and even Tormund nearly dies. Meanwhile, Jon helpfully starts screaming “FALL BACK! FALL BACK!” Literally WHERE Jon?! You are encircled!! HOW can you possibly fall back?! WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?!

Just as the world goes slow motion and the sad Death Is Imminent music starts to play, Dany, Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal turn up to save the day, burning thousands of men in a few short breaths.

Sadly, the Night King loves theatrics and has come prepared with a very long and very pointy ice spear. He takes aim at Viserion and throws it. Viserion is stabbed through the side, collapsing to the ground, and starts to die. Dany watches in horror. As Jon is attacked by zombies and dragged underwater, Dany has no time to wait for her hot, stupid boyfriend, and escapes before Drogon or Rhaegal suffer the same fate.

Weak and alone. Jon emerges from the water, and is immediately charged at by more soldiers. Improbably, he is suddenly saved by Uncle Benjen on horseback, who apparently lives beyond the Wall exclusively to save Starks who have bitten off way more than they can chew. In a Titanic moment, Benjen pretends there is no time or space for him to get on the horse with Jon and stays behind to die, again. Benjen’s horse, seemingly a very gifted horse, carries an unconscious Jon back to the Wall.

Dany walks in on a semi-naked Jon Snow, peeks at his gnarly scars and gets super-aroused. While Jon is naked and draped in rich blankets and Dany is all powerful yet emotionally vulnerable, the two look at each other tearfully and sexily and hold hands. KISS. KISS. KISS. Jon calls her Dany in a bizarre moment of fan-baiting (Dany even says “Who last called me that?” in a line taken from Game of Thrones pub quizzes the world over) before Jon metaphorically bends the knee. Gotta love to see monumental political decisions made out of sheer horniness. There is some sexy, prolonged hand-holding – the risqué shit Game of Thrones is known for. “You should get some rest,” Dany says, and Jon immediately shuts his eyes and pretends to sleep because he’s five years old.

The undead have magically produced four massive iron chains each about a mile in length and are dragging Viserion out of the water. He opens his eye. It’s blue. Dany’s white dragon has become a White dragon.

Phew. If you have any emotional energy for any other characters, then unfortunately Arya and Sansa’s bizarre, wooden feud continues this week. First, the two sisters seem to engage in some classic bonding through the ancient Game of Thrones practice of Talking About Their Dead Dad – before Arya turns on Sansa thanks to last week’s letter of betrayal. Littlefinger continues to be an unnecessary little bitch by widening the gulf between them, and advising Sansa to ask Brienne of Tarth to protect her from Arya. The whole thing culminates in a bizarre scene where Sansa finds Arya’s bag of faces and Arya threatens to take her face, too. For a second, I believe that Arya might kill her with Littlefinger’s old dagger, until she hands it to her, handle-first. Will they take Littlefinger’s face together and stop this ridiculous, out-of-character cold war? God, I hope so. Let this storyline rest forever.

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • The Hound to Gendry: “Your lips are moving and you're complaining about something. That’s whingeing.” +7
  • Tormund to the Hound: “Gingers are beautiful. We are kissed by fire!” +16
  • Tormund to the Hound: “I don’t think you’re truly mean. You have sad eyes.” +12
  • Tormund to the Hound: “Ah, dick. I like it.” +31
  • The Hound rescuing Tormund from certain death. +19
  • Tormund's deluded yet emotionally vulnerable speech about Brienne of Tarth. “I want to make babies with her. Think of them – great big monsters. They’d conquer the world!” + 26
  • Beric Dondarrion casually calling The Iron Throne “some throne made of swords” like it’s utterly beneath him. +16
  • Gendry besting his reputation as a badass long distance rower to become a furious long distance cross country runner. +21
  • Dany taking the time to make sure she’s wearing Beyond The Wall Chic with a Cruella Deville-esque snow white fur robe before she heads out to save the almost-certainly dying men. +19
  • Dany calling Jon “too little” for her. Smooth cover, Dany! We totally believe you don’t fancy him now! +7
  • Jon suddenly and very transparently deciding to bend the knee now he’s in alone in a bedroom with Daenerys! +18
  • Jon holding tight on to Dany’s hand. Bold move. +12


That means this week’s bad bitch is, of course, the man, the myth, the ICON: Tormund. Romantic, flirty, Good At Killing People, and also pretty dumb, Tormund is the fire-kissed angel of my life. May he continue to endeavour to deserve Brienne.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.