Artistic licence - or did they hijack the truth?

By Norman Lebrecht, February 16, 2012
From the St Louis production last June: the Palestinian terrorist, Youssef al-Molqi, is ready to shoot Klinghoffer

From the St Louis production last June: the Palestinian terrorist, Youssef al-Molqi, is ready to shoot Klinghoffer

One sunny morning in October 1985, while leaving a Rome hotel on my way to join a Franco Zeffirelli film set, my checkout was delayed by the sudden arrival of two busloads of tourists who looked more than usually weary and subdued.

"Just off the Achille Lauro," explained the desk clerk. The Lauro, top news story of the week, was an Italian cruise ship hijacked by four Palestinians and held for two days off Port Said before a negotiated release. In the course of those two days, an American-Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, 69, was shot in his wheelchair and thrown overboard.

The faces of his fellow-passengers, haggard in the hotel lobby, bore the marks of an ordeal that I, standing by, could merely conjecture.

Those faces were still fresh in mind when I heard that the cruise attack was being made into an instant opera. The composer John Adams, who had invented a TV-news opera genre with the wildly successful Nixon in China, had regrouped with director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman to create The Death of Klinghoffer.

Insensitive, I thought, when the world premiere was staged in Brussels in March 1991, less than five years after the attack. My friend Manuela Hoelterhoffer concurred with this view in her Wall Street Journal review, writing that the opera "turns the sport-killing of a frail old Jew in a wheelchair into a cool meditation on meaning and myth, life and death."

The opera's history

In 1985, disabled Leon Klinghoffer was shot and thrown overboard in his wheelchair when Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro.
Six years later the composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman devised one of the most controversial of modern operas, The Death of Klinghoffer.
Now due to be performed by the English National Opera from February 25, the work has aroused criticism and protest whenever it has been staged, accused of anti-semitism and exploitation.
The JC's opera critic, Malcolm Miller, attended the world premiere in Brussels in 1991. Though he said the opera asked more questions than it answered, he concluded: "The opera is about anger and love, rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict."
But although It was to have been staged at Glyndebourne shortly after its premiere, the festival's chairman, Sir George Christie, cancelled it because it had become "a political hot potato."
Librettist Alice Goodman, who was born Jewish but is now a Church of England minister, converted to Christianity while she was writing the opera. In an interview in 2003, she said that the director of the original production, Paul Sellars, had wanted the opera to be much more pro-Palestine than it was.
She said that he kept saying to her: "Don't call the boys [the Palestinians] terrorists."
The first fully-staged UK production took place in August 2005 at the Edinburgh Festival, by the Scottish Opera. A film of the opera was shown on Channel 4 in 2003.

Klinghoffer's daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, discreetly attended the US premiere that year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and made public their dismay. Productions at Glyndebourne and Los Angeles were called off. The Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a post-9/11 concert of musical excerpts on the grounds that, by giving voice to a Palestinian hijacker, the opera might be seen as justifying terrorism. The New York Times ran an inflammatory headline: "Is Klinghoffer Anti-Semitic?"

Since then there has been a spatter of performances and a television film on Channel 4. Despite a number of revisions that jettison some of the more contentious aspects, the work has, for one reason or other, struggled to gain acceptance. The London premiere at English National Opera next week might well be its last chance, the more so since EMI has become a feeder-house for the mighty Metropolitan Opera. A hit in London could win the opera a ticket to New York, a miss is a passage to oblivion.

The Klinghoffers reiterated their views this week in a press statement issued via the Anti-Defamation League. The Death of Klinghoffer, they say, "perverts the terrorist murder of our father, and attempts to rationalise, legitimise and explain it." These sentiments cannot lightly be set aside. The daughters suffered a double tragedy, losing their mother to cancer just four months after their father's murder. Their pain has been exposed for public entertainment and their argument chimes strongly with another current of public opinion: the desire for better protection of personal privacy from a rude, rampant, often reckless media culture. Lord Leveson might be required to add the opera to his body of evidence.

Knowing the work and the sincerity of its creators there are, to my mind, three issues that need to be determined. Is it antisemitic? Does it invade privacy? And does its artistic merit override the two previous qualms?

The charge of racism arises from a heat-seeking 2001 essay in the New York Times by a flamboyant historian, Richard Taruskin, who accused Adams and Goodman of pandering in Brussels to the prejudices of European audiences – "anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois." Wild as it was, the Taruskin slur stuck. So, is it?

I have recently reread the libretto and relistened to the opera. One aria by the most brutal of the Palestinians gives grounds for concern. "Rambo", as he is called, sings that "wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat…" But the Jew he is taunting is helpless in his wheelchair, and midway through the aria Rambo veers off into a riff against the English that is, if anything, more vicious and racist than his bile against the Jews. The name "Rambo" suggests that this is not a rational or reasonable man. His rant rebounds, reducing him in our eyes.

A Swiss passenger who sighs in relief, "at least we are not Jews," summons sympathy for those who are, and the callousness with which the Palestinians dispose of their victim will repulse all who witness it. The opening of the opera, a chorus of exiled Palestinians, is balanced immediately by a chorus of exiled Jews.

Goodman - born Jewish, now an Anglican vicar - employs Bible stories to elucidate the historic animus, on the whole ineffectually. She, along with Adams and Sellars, has spoken of the need to understand the motives of terrorists. Adams, who is by some distance America"s foremost living opera composer, has argued that his country deserves better "than comfort and familiarity in these difficult times". None of this bilateralism makes them, or the opera, antisemitic.

The question of privacy is more problematic. Nobody asked Leon Klinghoffer if he wanted to be in an opera, any more than they asked if he wanted to be killed. Those who die in a very public way are often gripped for all time by a limelight they never sought, be they Edith Cavell, Hannah Szenesz or the Taliban-killed US journalist Daniel Pearl, who would rather be alive today than the subject of a Steve Reich score. The fame that comes from a public death is inescapable.

It is easy to understand how violated the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer must feel every time they read of his death being commented upon in the press or exalted as art. Their pain is genuine and, regrettably, without remedy. Once a tragedy enters the public space, nothing can restore its privacy.

The only consolation they can draw that this opera is far from being a tawdry exploitation or an insignificant work of art. Its score is subtler and emotionally more layered than the post-minimalism of Nixon in China, while the drama affords viewers time and space to relate the events to their own moral compass.

Some consider The Death of Klinghoffer to be Adams's greatest work. I do not share that view, finding the recent Doctor Atomic richer in every sense. But I shall go down to the general rehearsal next week prepared to have my mind changed on all counts and my previous position overturned. It is a confrontational work. I am eager to confront it once again.

The Death of Klinghoffer opens at English National Opera on Feb 25.

Last updated: 1:29pm, February 16 2012