Rarely has an operatic work been more controversial, or split audiences so cleanly down political lines, than John Adams’s and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Based on the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro — and the subsequent murder of 69-year-old disabled American Jew Leon Klinghoffer — the opera first premiered in 1991 to mixed reviews. Klinghoffer has been branded as “anti-Semitic” and “anti-bourgeois” for its consciously even-handed approach in documenting both the events on board the Achille Lauro and the historical content of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This new performance, co-produced by the English National Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera, marks the London premier of Adams’ sand Goodman’s vision. Tom Morris, co-director of War Horse, brings a moody and modern take to the staging, adding further nuance to the work’s historical context with the harsh grey lines of the Wall of Separation that encase and imprison the performers on the stage. Adams’s soaring melodies, often modulated in polyharmonic tones reminiscent of the Arab love songs played to the captain by one of the hijackers, provide the perfect accompaniment to Goodman’s lyrical prose.
The libretto juxtaposes mythological and Shakespearean undertones with colloquial speech as Goodman switches from depicting exiled Palestinians and Jews to the real-life characters of passengers and hijackers. The plot, too, is fluid and almost timeless; flowing from personal memoir to historical re-enactments and back again with no particular chronology. Michaela Martens’s evocative performance as Marilyn Klinghoffer was a tender complement to Christopher Magiera’s brusque and professional Captain, with a particularly haunting debut by Clare Presland as the Palestinian woman. Arthur Pita’s elegant choreography was particularly effective in the “Aria of the Falling Body”, artfully rendering the tragedy of Klinghoffer’s body being thrown overboard.
Indeed, if this were any other opera, treating any other subject matter, I could not fault it. And yet what I found troubling about this new staging of Klinghoffer was not the opera itself, but the whiff of controversy that continues to cling to it. Alice Goodman, in a recent interview with the NS, conceded that the main reason Klinghoffer has been the focus of such public outcry is that it “looks at everybody as a person”, whether that person be victim or murderer. In a 2001 New York Times article, Richard Taruskin criticised Klinghoffer for “romantically idealising criminals” and “indulging” terrorists. It is this that has so polarised opinion: on the one hand we have those (usually from the right) who say it is anti-Semitic and a glorification of terrorism; while on the other we have those (usually from the left) who defend it for giving a voice to the hijackers and placing them within the historical context of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the two decades since its premier, hardly has the debate gone beyond this simple division.
While I would applaud both Adams and Goodman for their political foresight (not to mention their artistic talents) in attempting to rectify the balance in debating Palestinian and Israeli issues, I would also argue that this work does not go far enough. Yes, there is a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians that is juxtaposed with a Chorus of Exiled Jews; but the Palestinians are portrayed as primitive, angry and destructive, while the Jews are seen peacefully planting trees and building a country. Yes, we are given an insight into the mind of the fictional hijacker Omar, but his dreams of martyrdom and Paradise are an absurd parody of Islamic values, and if anything serve to alienate him from the audience rather than underline his humanity. Ultimately, this production presents a spurious balance between the two sides in this conflict, tapping into contrived and cemented stereotypes of the “Arab terrorist” that do little to contextualise the historical scene or redefine the terms of the debate.
At the time of its premier, Klinghoffer may well have broken ground by daring to show Palestinians as human, in however a diluted form. The fact that over twenty years later we can still regard the attempt to give Palestinians a voice — beyond that of “terrorists” — as politically and morally contentious, is troubling in the extreme.
Alexandra Coghlan’s essay on classical music and politics appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.