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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.

Pathos: Tom Morris’s 2012 production for ENO. Photo: Rex Features
Pathos: Tom Morris’s 2012 production for ENO. Photo: Rex Features

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.

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