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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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood