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The Death of Klinghoffer – worth a protest

A lone protestor stood outside English National Opera on the opning night of John Adams’s controversial opera. His placard was subdued and to the point. Several operagoers stopped by to chat.

In the lobby, an elderly acquaintance announced his intention to boo. So far as I could tell, he refrained. There was no demonstration at the premiere – a false Sunday Telegraph story had predicted one – and the response to the opera by a packed house was respectful, if less than overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

My personal estimation of the piece dropped a notch in the first ten minutes and kept on falling. Alice Goodman’s libretto clunked as never before. There were so many clumsy and misplaced metaphors that my companion and I lost count.

To compensate for the wordiness and pseudo-worthiness of the script, director Tom Morris overdosed on visual metaphors, brandishing pro-Palestinian graffiti and an ominous West Bank wall – a barrier that was not built or dreamed of at the time of the terrorist murder of the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer in October 1985.

There is propaganda enough in the opera to obviate the need for such devices. Its most resonant line, from a chorus of Palestinian exiles, is ‘Israel laid all to waste’. The lines is repeated four times. There is no counterbalancing argument for the Israeli case. The Death of Klinghoffer is not, as I have stipulated elsewhere, anti-semitic, but it is anti-Zionist to the point of obsession.

Klinghoffer himself is portrayed sympathetically and sung with deep affinity by Alan Opie. Michaela Martins was equally heroic as his wife, Marilyn. Musically, the performance was the best I have heard, Baldur Broenimann exercising pinpoint control of the excellent ENO orchestra. The loudest applause was reserved for the composer, John Adams. The librettist did not take a bow.

This new ENO production is shared with the Metropolitan Opera. I doubt they will dare to transfer it to New York. I am not even sure they should. Apart from being one-sided, The death of Klinghoffer is starting to feel outdated.

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  1. While certain minor points of this criticism ring true: the anachronism of the barrier, for example (that said, I don’t see the critic complaining wholeheartedly about the non-Enlightenment sets in new Figaro productions) I don’t think it suffices to dismiss the libretto as ‘worthy’. This is a term often used to dismiss political views as vain or misdirected, ignoring the context that breeds them or the extant passion that holds them. While a debate may be had over such arguments’ validity in realpolitik, the greater debate here is surely to be found in whether an opera may be a polemic; whether an opera may (god forbid!) escape the hallowed, morbid grounds of 18th century reason and make a contemporary argument.

    All of this said, this production was far from a PLO puff-piece. The abiding sentiment was this: ‘How did the hijackers destroy their case by killing this man – one man – in terms of wider politics? How is the value of life seen on the wider scale and what biases govern that relationship?’

    I didn’t come away from this performance with as prejudicial a view as Lebrecht’s. It was a challenging subject, but it wasn’t a putsch. The piece makes a point that comes down on neither side of the sodden Israel-Palestine entanglement. But it does make a point. And it should be able to do so without Norman throwing a wet towel over it.

  2. I was invited with a friend and was also apprehensive about all the hype – as a member of the English Defence League, believe me, I’m not pro Palestinian! My take on lines like those you mention is that they were indicative of the brainwashing Palestinians are subjected to from childhood so that not supporting terrorism in some way is not an option. I think this is definitely a case where everybody needs to make their own mind up.

  3. Thank you Mr Lebrecht for making this important distinction between anti-semitic and anti-Zionist. But I think another distinction would have to be made between “anti-Zionist” and “critical of the Israeli governement/politics”. As a matter of fact, I think it makes no sense today to be “anti-Zionist” or “pro-Zionist” : the State of Israel exists qua State, so it would make as little sense to claim to be against the existence of Israel as to claim to be against the existence of France or UK. But I think it leaves room for being critical of the Israeli government, whose politics are disastrous.

    As for the opera itself, I have never been a gret fan of John Adams, but I must say the Death of Klighoffer is one of his best works. From this point of view, don’t you think that the evening was salvaged from being a disaster by the fine musical performance you describe (the stage direction being another bad one, which is, alas, the “daily bread” — as we say in French — of every operagoer today) ?

    • I agree, Mathieu, tha Klinghoffer contains some of Adams’s best music

      • One problem with the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is that in modern usage Zionism has a plethora of meanings. There’s Labor Zionism, Liberal Zionism, Nationalist Zionism, Religious Zionism, and Christian Zionism among other usages. In its most basic sense, Zionism is the belief that Jewish people should have an autonomous homeland. It is virtually impossible to oppose that form of Zionism without being anti-Semitic. On the other hand, there is lively political debate even in Israel about Religious Zionism that is obviously not anti-Semitic. There are also forms of Nationalist Zionism that are expansionist and the subject of wide debate in Israel and abroad. The debate is generally political, but sometimes contains racist thought about both Jews and Palestinians.

        I do not like John Adam’s music or his approach to music theater, which makes it difficult for me to evaluate the political meanings of the opera, but based on what I know, there isn’t anything in the music or text (though harshly critical of both sides) that would fit any of the more traditional meanings of anti-Zionism. Both Mr. Adams and Ms. Goodman support Israel’s right to exist. As far as I can see, the themes they address are legitimately political. So I’m wondering in what senses you might see the opera as anti-Zionist. Or perhaps there are others readers who have thoughts on this particular topic. (I know I might regret having raised such a difficult and volatile question, but perhaps it’s possible to have a constructive discussion.)

  4. Always find the writings of Mr. Lebrecht of interest – What I would like like to know what does Mr. Lebrecht mean
    by “worth a protest ” is it the libretto as a polemic concerning Israel or the music writing that should be in Mr. Lebrechts’ view” protested “. Since one cannot protest what a composer writes (you either accept it or you
    don’t ,depending on your musical knowledge ) it must be the libretto as a political statement . Since most librettos
    are beyond the pale of human understanding ,could this one be accepted with the same tolerance or are
    we too closely conditioned to the history – the Met wouldn’t dare to it for many obvious reasons – among them one would be that it
    does not have some shrieking soprano doing her high”e” to the approval of the” brava” crowd who forgive
    anything except a shrieking high “e” . This all seemingly boils down to “whose political ox is being gored “

  5. This seems to me Ms. Goodman’s perspective in general. Evidenced even in her own life, her brilliance is in her ability to see all the permutations which might play in any given situation. I had to settle myself down from the same uneasy feelings frankly when she humanized Nixon and Lady Mao, speculating on various psychological underpinnings which might inform their actions, but I’ve since been trying, unsuccessfully, to obtain a copy of the Nixon in China libretto to plumb what she has to offer. It will deepen my future viewings of it, which i hope come soon and often. Perhaps studying the Klinghoffer libretto on its own would also be a worthwhile pursuit.

    • It is the dehumanization of our enemies that seems to be one of the great failings of the human mind. And of course, this is happening on both sides of the conflict. If the production of “Klinghofer” is censored in New York, it will send exactly the wrong message to the world community. The effect will be far worse than any discussion the opera might raise.

      Ms. Goodman also wanted to write a libretto based on the Waco catastrophe. There too, enemies were dehumanized to the point that 25 children under the age of 15 were burned alive. What does it say about our society and our cultural lives that Ms. Goodman was silenced before she could write that work?

      • Peter Gelb has shown no inclination to follow critical opinion either with regard to whether a production is produced in NY or not, or with regard to whom the production involves. I doubt this production would be abandoned easily, especially since there have been both negative and positive opinions expressed.

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