Opera is dying in New York. Or at least it was until last month.
Plagued by the aging of the fan base, New York’s last standing opera house is struggling to keep the art form alive and relevant. One year after City Opera closed its doors, the Metropolitan Opera was on the brink of shutdown this season until unions and management reached a last-minute agreement to lower costs.
Against this backdrop, it was surprising to see the city abuzz this fall over an opera. But, then again, nothing rouses New York elites so much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the opera in question, American composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by a fringe Palestinian group and the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
Charging the opera with anti-Semitism, opponents began lobbying the Met to cancel the production before it had even premiered. Based on their reading of the libretto, these opponents claimed that the opera legitimizes terrorism. Though the Met rejected picketers’ demands to cancel the production — no doubt a costly proposition — it still bent over backward to appease its critics. The centerfold of the opera’s program contained a letter of opposition from the Klinghoffer heirs. And despite receiving a “not anti-Semitic” stamp from the Anti-Defamation League, the Met canceled its Live in HD simulcast of the opera, a service it offers to make opera more accessible to people who live far from Manhattan or can’t easily afford tickets. That decision, lauded by the ADL, came in deference to concerns that the opera could stoke anti-Semitism, especially in Europe where attacks on Jews spiked during Israel’s onslaught upon Gaza this past summer. It was a bizarre concession. If the opera is not anti-Semitic, why cancel its broadcast?
What is really threatening about The Death of Klinghoffer is that it offers a basic history of Israel that many Americans are unfamiliar with. The prologue features a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians who tell the story of their displacement in 1948. The idea of a people forced from their homes, murdered and disenfranchised by foreign settlers tends to elicit sympathy. The opera thus entertains the idea that Palestinians have legitimate grievances. Klinghoffer director Tom Morris said, “My ideal response is that people think about and reflect on the crime that the opera dramatizes and — if they choose — the circumstances which might have led to it.”
So perhaps opponents worry that the opera will prompt viewers to see the conflict in less black-and-white terms, a shift that dancer Jesse Kovarsky, who plays a hijacker named Omar, described experiencing himself: “As someone who’s been raised pro-Israel, who’s a Jew, who grew up in a country that is pro-Israel, I never knew anything about Palestine or Palestinians. And to be invited into this opera and encouraged to study that history, I’ve been exposed to a world that I totally…. I’m confused by my own upbringing in terms of how I see the conflict, how I see it now.” The idea that an opera can change a person’s perspective on a topic that has been front-page news for decades suggests how one-dimensional American understanding of the conflict is.
Klinghoffer sets the context in which the hijacking of the Achille Lauro took place through two choruses — one of exiled Palestinians and another of exiled Jews. The Palestinians, dressed in drab gray robes that recall the grim reaper, are angry, destructive and violent. The Jews, in modern European garb, are calm and peaceful, singing of their attachment to the land and bearing olive trees.
Later, a Palestinian hijacker tells of how his love for the gun was born when he was just five years old. Although the hijackers relate atrocities committed against them by Jews, strangely the Israeli narrative is totally demilitarized. The casual viewer would not know that military service is a rite of passage in Israel or that militarism is valorized as a part of Jewish national identity. Guns are ubiquitous and openly brandished in the streets, and tourist shops display “Uzi does it” t-shirts to celebrate the Israeli assault rifle. The Israel Defense Forces is so beloved an institution that during last summer’s war on Gaza Israeli women mobilized in support of the troops by posting photos on Facebook of their scantily clothed bodies painted with the words “I heart IDF.”
Tom Morris’ production uses costume and set design to tie the opera’s events to the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. A massive floor-to-ceiling illuminated backdrop displays the separation wall in various degrees of relief throughout the performance. The first scene opens with the year 1948 displayed on the canvas; as the chorus advances the years marking successive wars flash onscreen, while the landscape alters and the wall gradually takes starker form until reaching 2014, when an opaque, towering concrete barrier is all that stands. Next enters the Chorus of Exiled Jews, suitcases in hand. At the end of the first act the two groups of exiles take the stage together, their voices intermingling and overlapping. As the chorus chants, “No one bothers to look up from their work,” the audience sees the words “Apathy kills” prominently displayed among the wall’s Palestine solidarity graffiti.
Librettist Alice Goodman could not have imagined such a production when the opera was first performed in 1991. The decision to tie the events of 1985 to the present reinforces the fact that the purview of the opera extends well beyond the hijacking incident. Morris, who worked in Israel in the early 1990s, says he hopes the opera will help people better understand the conflict. So it makes sense that he would use set design to tie the events of 1985 to all that has happened since. But the liberties he takes with time and context are at times careless and even harmful.
Palestinians, already portrayed by the chorus in an ominous ghost-like manner, appear trapped in time. Some of the women wear the abaya (a loose cloak) and niqab (the full face veil), even though such attire is uncommon among Palestinians. They wave solid green flags, redolent of an undefined Islamic affinity, yet not a single Palestinian national flag is unfurled throughout the opera. The Islamic depiction of the Palestinian struggle is perplexing because the hijackers of the Achille Lauro were part of a secular leftist group, and in 1985 Islamism was a marginal political force among Palestinians.
Klinghoffer’s Islamic representation of the hijacking is not confined to its visual attributes. The hijackers’ lines suggest they are motivated, at least in part, by an ideological clash of civilizations. One hijacker attacks Western culture for its “idolatry” and tolerance of “sodomy.” The libretto intimates that the hijacking is a suicide mission led by men so fanatical they desire their own death. Mahmoud (the libretto uses a non-standard spelling of his name), one of the hijackers, sings, “We don’t worry as we want to die. It is you, it is they who desire to live.” Omar, too, expresses a wish to be martyred. A woman, perhaps a vision of his mother, dressed in the baleful clothing of the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians sings his aria. In place of his words from the original libretto, “My heart will break if I do not walk in paradise in two days,” Omar’s anima sings, “My heart will break if you do not walk in paradise within two days.” Coming from a mother-like figure, the line perpetuates dehumanizing Israeli propaganda that Palestinian mothers breed merely for the sake of the national cause and purposely sacrifice their sons.
That is indeed how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended the premiere, interpreted the line. “There is one very dramatic scene of a Palestinian mother raising this child. His toy is a gun from when he’s five years old, and she’s raising him so that he will one day do a very brave act that will result in his own death and then he will go to paradise,” she said. “It was chilling.” In fact, Justice Ginsburg conflated separate stories of two hijackers: Mahmoud sings of his early love of the gun and the woman standing in for Omar sings of desiring death. But together the general message is the same: Palestinian children are taught to hate and to devalue life. In this light, the Leon Klinghoffer character’s words during his bold and righteous broadside resonate: “We’re human. We’re the kind of people you like to kill.”
In actuality, the hijackers’ goal was to achieve the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, an objective the opera mentions in a hijacker’s verse. In other words, the hijackers hoped to use the hostages as leverage in a negotiation, not to perpetrate a bloodbath. It was a botched operation, with the four hijackers left directionless at sea and unsure how to proceed. The suggestion that the hijacking might have been a suicide mission makes little sense on the opera’s own terms because, as it depicts, the hijackers arranged an escape, abandoning the ship and their hostages.
Despite these historical inaccuracies, Klinghoffer projects an appearance of being well researched. The production takes pains to provide the audience with historical information that appears on a sidebar-like screen beside the stage. The audience is apprised of behind-the-scenes negotiations to free the hostages and Syria’s refusal to allow the ship to dock in Tartous. But these tidbits of information, known only retrospectively, add little to the audience’s overall understanding and could have been more skillfully incorporated into the libretto. Instead, the opera seems littered with explanatory footnotes. The effect is heavy-handed, with stuffy storytelling stifling emotion.
It is hard to imagine how The Death of Klinghoffer could be construed as anti-Semitic. It is true that some of the hijackers’ lines are anti-Semitic, but they are uttered to offer a portrait of the hijackers as depraved and maniacal, not to persuade the audience that Jews are less than human. The opera humanizes the hijackers in the sense that it gives them a voice, a backstory and a face. But, on the whole, Klinghoffer perpetuates stereotypes of Palestinians as violent, death-seeking religious fanatics. Klinghoffer might depict two sides to the conflict, but the portrait it paints of Palestinians is one that Palestinians themselves would struggle to recognize. What is most threatening about the opera for the Zionist narrative is that it recounts some of the less known and less savory aspects of Israel’s history: ethnic cleansing, massacres and apartheid.
Image: The separation wall near Bethlehem. (Ted Swedenburg)