By Lori Lowenthal Marcus
The most important thing to know about the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of the provocation piece The Death of Klinghoffer is that the first of what should be many protests against it will be on Monday, September 22, starting at 4:30 p.m., at the Metropolitan Opera, which is nestled in the Lincoln Center Complex, at Broadway and West 65th Street in New York City.
The opera itself is still set to run at the Met for eight performances, starting on Monday, October 20, running through mid-November. But in a concession that should serve as an admission, the Met pulled Death from its lineup of operas it simulcasts to theaters around the world.
Why? Because as Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, admitted in a statement issued in mid-June, the international Jewish community is genuinely concerned that “the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
It beggars the imagination that Gelb and his board recognized and acted in deference to genuine concern about the effect the opera could have for Jews in Europe, but shut their ears to the genuine concern and outrage over staging it in New York City, where there is one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world.
What is wrong with this opera, you ask? Spending hours listening to scenes from the opera only undergirds the enmity expressed towards the opera by concerned ranks of the Jewish community.
There are lines in this opera that are blatantly anti-Semitic. Lines such as this, sung by one of the terrorists to Klinghoffer: “Wherever poor people are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat. America is one big Jew.”
And then there is this line sung about the Jews: “You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.”
Yes, those lines are both flat-footed and bigoted and should not have been written or sung. If you think not, can you imagine an opera made about Ferguson in which Michael Brown and all black people are described with all the worst stereotypical insults leveled at African Americans? Of course not.
But the problems with the opera go far beyond several unforgivably offensive lines spoken by a romanticized Arab terrorist. And it’s even worse than the decision to title the opera using a magic wand that converts a pathological act of brutal violence into a passive act for which no one, at least not the actual murderer and his accomplices, are to blame.
Leon Klinghoffer did not just “die.” On October 7, 1985, Leon Klinghoffer was murdered in cold blood by Arab terrorist members of the Palestine Liberation Front. Klinghoffer was shot point blank in the head and in the chest as he sat in his wheelchair on the deck of the cruise ship on which he was traveling with his wife to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. Shot in the head and in the chest, and then thrown overboard, he and his wheelchair, simply because he was a Jew. A 69-year-old disabled American Jew. It was murder, not death. If there must be an opera about this atrocity, at least have the decency to use the proper term.
The opera begins with two choruses. The “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” and the “Chorus of Exiled Jews.” The story of the “Exiled Palestinians” starts in 1948. It starts with the Jews arriving and destroying the homes of the “Palestinians.” Those homes where “no one was turned away” and the doorway had been worn down from all the guests. But then, as the crescendo builds, the chorus intones:
“Israel laid all to waste!” “Israel laid all to waste!” “Israel laid all to waste!” “Israel laid all to waste!”
And then for the answering chorus, the one of the “Exiled Jews,” the story starts in the mid-1940s. That’s right. This is a story that embraces as truth the narrative of the Palestinian Arabs. Their claim is that they are the innocent victims, dispossessed of their land because the world felt bad for the Jews—a brutalized, but also brutal people, who were nearly extinguished by Europeans (not Arabs!) during World War II. And that is the behind-the-story story of this opera.
Supporters of the Death opera will say (we know this because they have said it) that the whole point of this political “work of art,” is that it comes at a point in the fight between Arabs and Israelis where it can be used to stand for the whole conflict. The Los Angeles Times said it offered “a rare insight into the most troubling and destructive political and cultural divisions of our age.”
In other words, it turns the Jewish truth into a lie and transforms the mendacious Palestinian Arab narrative—that they were in Israel first, that they were the indigenous people, that they were sweet, warm, welcoming people who were turned out of their homes by the bedraggled and brutal Jews who were permitted passage (ultimately) to “Palestine,” in order to assuage the guilt of the Europeans.
Death ignores what is for Adams and Goodman an inconvenient historical truth: The historical connection and the centuries-long relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
The Klinghoffer opera transforms the Palestinian Arabs’ false, lethal narrative into truth, while wresting away the truth of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. A relationship which predates even Christianity and Islam, let alone the Palestinian Arabs, by centuries.
So to choose falsely, as did John Adams, the composer, and Alice Goodman, the librettist, and Peter Sellars, the artiste provocateur who came up with the idea for this opera, is to embellish the lie. The point of choosing to begin the drama in the mid-1940s was precisely because it serves their political position, and it allows them to feign objectivity and humanity.
The telling of the story by using this snippet of history does not simply glorify the terrorism. It justifies the terrorism by pretending to equalize the suffering of Arabs and Jews. The Jews suffered in the Holocaust, so they were given land that belonged to the Arabs, thereby dispossessing the Arabs and creating, in turn, the Arabs’ suffering. Except that in this “narrative,” the Jews are both victims and wrongdoers: only the Arabs are completely innocent, having been minding their own business in “their own” country; then the Jews showed up in need of a home, so the Arabs were driven into the street.
This past spring, the Long Beach Opera presented two performances of the Death opera. In the notes for those performances, there is this:
“This opera is a work of art, and the story, dialogue, and dramatic effects it contains are not intended to be an historical accounting of the events that transpired on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.”
How nice to be absolved of responsibility for miscasting history and promoting hatred by calling a false narrative a “work of art.”
Of less importance is that the swells of music, the lyrical phrases, and melancholy yearnings nearly all trill from the throats of the Arabs, and the stilted words and phrases (in particular, the words sung in the first song by Mrs. Klinghoffer, are practically a recitation from a medical textbook) come from the Jews.
No one can deny that the Death opera humanizes terrorism. Indeed, that was the goal, according to the composer, John Adams. For Adams and for the librettist, Alice Goodman (a former Reform Jew, now an Anglican cleric and never a historian), it is not enough to know that the Palestinian Arabs did this terrible thing. No, for them, it is essential to understand why the Arabs acted as they did, for that is how one “discovers” the humanity in the situation.
Here is the composer, speaking about the reaction to Death.
“Our opera tries to look at the terrorists and at the passengers and see humanity in both of them, and for some people that’s an egregious mistake. I don’t feel it is.
“That for all the brutality and the moral wrong that they perpetrated in killing this man, they’re still human beings and there still has to be reasons why they did this act.”
This opera, therefore, adopts exactly the same approach adopted by the most pathological haters of the western world after 9/11; we need to understand why these Muslims flew airplanes into buildings and slaughtered 3,000 innocents. Surely, there is a reason, and if we understand that reason, and we address it (for it must be, really, our fault), then we can make sure such a tragedy does not happen again.
Adams continues, “I think what Alice Goodman and I tried to do is to create a work of art that makes people feel and music is ultimately about feeling and that may be why, when people go to the opera house, and they experience this opera, they have strong feelings.
“The music is effective and if it’s a good performance, or even a great performance, then you are going to feel all the more strongly. And I think if we’ve succeeded with that, then it’s a good thing.”
No, sometimes strong feelings are elicited because one’s relationship to reality and truth has been violated, and because such violations set the stage for further terrorism and trauma.
The Metropolitan Opera is not the first to present the Death opera. It premiered in Brussels on March 19, 1991, at the Théâtre de Monnaie, and later, shockingly, was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It received rave reviews in San Francisco, but that was the end of its American run until recently.
It was not unwelcome simply because it is offensive. It was shunned for its heavy-handed political correctness and its leaden prose. It was panned by major critics, including the Wall Street Journal and even the New York Times, and later canceled in the wake of various acts of Islamic terrorism. But all that hasn’t dissuaded the Metropolitan Opera and others from shoving this political provocation up the noses of mere Jews.
In response to those who claim that the Death opera is not an insult to the Klinghoffers and is not anti-Semitic, one’s jaw drops.
After seeing a performance of the opera, Lisa and Isla Klinghoffer wrote they were “outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the cold-blooded murder of our father.” It is true that many people dislike the portrayal of themselves or their loved ones in commercial vehicles, but if one claims that it is not hurtful, surely the Klinghoffer daughter’s verdict is final. They wrote that it “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize, and explain it.”
If you care about truth and honesty then you should stand with those who protest this travesty. For New Yorkers, the first rally against this vindication of terrorism is on Monday, September 22, starting at 4:30 p.m., in front of Lincoln Center. For everyone else, let Peter Gelb, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera, know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.