Protestors Have A Point, But The Controversial John Adams Opera The Death Of Klinghoffer Has Redeeming Qualities

Bob Stump Former member, Arizona House of Representatives
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NEW YORK — It was an otherwise routine opening night at Lincoln Center, on September 21, as the moon washed the dusk with silver and hovered over the locus of the operatic sublime in the Western world, the Metropolitan Opera. Upwards of 200 protestors — brandishing signs reading “SHAME ON YOU” and “RACIST OPERA” — demonstrated and trickled away into the night. Their ranks were swollen with earnest souls who admitted they had not actually seen the opera they were protesting: John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. The Met has fallen on terrifically hard times — rocked by labor uprest, it nearly folded. Its credit rating was at risk of downgrade. Now it was facing yet another potential crisis: a boycott by Jewish groups, and accusations of being “pro-terrorist.”

The Anti-Defamation League condemned the opera’s “implicit justification of terrorism through the juxtaposition of Palestinian and Jewish suffering.” Judea Pearl, father of terrorist victim Daniel Pearl, lamented that “choreographing an operatic drama around criminal pathology is not an artistic prerogative, but a blatant betrayal of public trust.” The concern that Klinghoffer’s worldwide broadcast in movie theaters might foment anti-Semitism led to the cancellation of its “Live in HD” transmission.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, in June, condemned the opera as “a sympathetic portrayal of terrorism against the Jewish people.” Sen. Ted Cruz, who had been rumored to attend the September protest, sent his regrets, due to what his spokeswoman called “a scheduling conflict.”

Opera is an art form that usually registers no more than a blip on the national consciousness, so it is exceedingly rare for an opera to set segments of the political world on its ear. But John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, which treats the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and was first performed in 1991, has done precisely that. It has cast into sharp relief questions about art and politics, anti-Semitism, and one abiding feature of the modern age: the stance, particularly prevalent among some sectors of our intelligentsia, of moral equivalence.

Adams has striven, in his seven operas, to infuse contemporary events — Nixon’s foray into China, Oppenheimer’s fathering of the atomic bomb — with the gravitas and pathos of Greek tragedy, to render timeless operas from material which, in lesser hands, might find itself reduced to mere period pieces. Klinghoffer has eclipsed, in fame if not in accomplishment, Adams’ other works.

The opera, says Adams, “tries to look at the terrorists and passengers and see humanity in both of them.” Alice Goodman’s libretto and Adams’ score strike a tone of political and moral even-handedness: The depicted displacement of Palestinian and European Jewish families are narrated by choruses of equal length. Brutality is rampant, on both sides. Palestinians are forcefully ejected from their houses “the day after the creation of the State of Israel.” “My father’s house was razed in 1948,” intones the chorus, “when the Israelis passed over our street.” Palestinian terrorists-in-waiting, wronged as youths by Israeli military incursions, sing the wish that “Israel [be] laid to waste.”

“We are not soldiers fighting a war,” sings Molqi, a terrorist, after riddling the Achille Lauro’s dining room with bullets. “We are not criminals…but men of ideals.” The terrorists swerve between poles of brutality and compassion: They bring clothes, food, cigarettes and blankets to their captives; they console the Achille Lauro’s captain when he is startled by a fluttering bird; they joke with their victims. Even terrorists are human beings, after all, and nearly all human beings joke.

A cruise showgirl labels Omar, a misunderstood Palestinian youth who just happens to be a terrorist, “extremely nice.” Omar, a better judge of character, sings that his “soul is all violence,” as his past stoning of a woman refusing to wear a headscarf would tend to suggest.

To be sure, even-handedness does not necessarily equate to moral equivalence. Yet the desire to “see the humanity” in those inflicting manifestly inhuman acts veers dangerously close to exonerating evil, even though exoneration is not the intent of Adams — a decent man who won the Pulitzer Prize for his musical tribute to September 11, and one of our greatest living composers.

Adams says terrorism and opera both “go to the max.” Yet opera, which traffics in the bold, primary colors of human passion and depicts good and evil in neon lights, is an awkward vehicle for the even-handedness Adams strives to achieve. Indeed, titling the opera the “death,” rather than the “murder,” of Klinghoffer suggests an almost clinical objectivity that co-exists uneasily with the high drama inherent in opera. The word “murder” indicates invariably an agency that is absent in the word “death”: Death can come naturally, on its own accord, and can be morally neutral. Murder is, of course, another story entirely. Murder is the stuff of opera. Leon Klinghoffer’s demise is properly the story of his murder — not his “death.”

Such attempts at “objectivity” derive from a reluctance to render moral distinctions, which stems from an ersatz tolerance that dulls the edges of our moral vocabulary and runs especially rampant in certain sectors of the political Left.  Moral indiscriminateness, manifest in the desire to “humanize” terrorists, appeals to people of exquisitely even-handed sensibilities whose impulse in the face of evil is not to dispense justice swiftly but to “comprehend” the “root causes” of tragedy.

To those in thrall to this worldview, culturally-elite Americans must move beyond good and evil: Unsophisticated words such as “good” and “evil” divide us, preclude a sense of nuance, and instill in us feelings of unwarranted superiority.

Those who strive to see the “humanity” in terrorists and “understand” their “motivations” believe they are facing the reality of life squarely and eschewing the touchingly innocent moral categories of an age less “advanced” or “progressive” than ours. But refusing to call a spade a spade bespeaks a flinching from reality, a failure of nerve, a retreat into a soothing cocoon of relativistic, often pseudo-therapeutic verbiage.

This is not to disparage the artistic rendering of moral nuance. A skilled representation of such nuance affirms that the world is indeed fundamentally divided by light and dark, the very affirmation of which enables the painting of shades of gray. “There is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love,’” writes Virginia Woolf, “and we cannot silence him.” Nor should we.

In The Death of Klinghoffer, the Achille Lauro’s peace-seeking, politically naive captain, apparently fresh from an imaginary stroll through Strawberry Fields, hoists a pastel flag of moral confusion. “You speak of failure? I say you did not fail until you killed,” he tells a hijacker. “Yesterday, the entire world acknowledged the significance attaching to — let me not mince words — your disruption of this cruise. You awakened their consciences.”

Labeling a cruise hijacking a “disruption” is itself ironically a “mincing of words,” and an encapsulation of the moral even-handedness at the heart of The Death of Klinghoffer. The terrorists are rebels with a cause, until they “failed” by killing a disabled Jew in a wheelchair — a disruption of their otherwise noble political messaging. Had Twitter existed in 1985, wouldn’t a hashtag campaign have proved more effective?

Using terrorists as mouthpieces to “explain” the Palestinian cause to which Adams has pinned his political hopes may ironically cause more harm to the movement than had Adams used — shall we say — less “disruptive” mouthpieces.

Indeed, for those who contend — as Adams does — that the pro-Palestinian outlook has been given short shrift in the United States, why represent this viewpoint by killers who utter deplorably anti-Semitic dialogue such as “America is one big Jew” and “Wherever poor men / Are gathered they can / Find Jews getting fat”? Why manifest the “root causes” of Palestinian suffering in the depiction of acts of terrorism? The opera itself is not anti-Semitic, as the Anti-Defamation League has assured us. But anti-Semitic dialogue is sung solely by pro-Palestinian terrorists. Shouldn’t peace-loving proponents of a Palestinian state be protesting Klinghoffer?

At first blush, the passages cited as anti-Semitic seem as anti-Semitic as Huck Finn’s ramblings about African-Americans in Huckleberry Finn are racist: They appear illustrative, not prescriptive — words in the mouths of the characters, not the author. Even so, how is Adams’ opera served dramatically or politically with words that seem, in their ferocity and frequency, gratuitously anti-Semitic?

Moreover, the fact that music of such beauty — gorgeous passages do abound in Klinghoffer — would emit from the throats of ruthless killers is reminiscent of the debates over Richard Wagner’s Parsifal: How could music of astonishingly sensual beauty accompany an opera whose undertones are deplorably anti-Semitic? (Thankfully, the accusation of anti-Semitism is rarely leveled, in the modern era, against Parsifal, a work indebted to Schopenhauer, not anti-Semites).

Jay Nordlinger, writing on the Klinghoffer controversy, cited Leon Wieseltier’s admonishing of John Updike for his renderings of the terror attacks of 9/11, in which Updike transformed, through his prose, details of horror into things of beauty. Updike was likely chastised because to transfigure evil artistically into a thing of beauty is, on some level, evocative of praise.

In other words, the very act of artistic creation is primally associated with the good — the genesis which God saw was good. To take aesthetic pleasure from the depiction of evil is, on some level, unnerving. This is, perhaps, one aspect of the queasiness induced by Klinghoffer. How are we to react to music of exceeding loveliness when it follows the murder of a wheelchair-bound innocent, and serves as musical accompaniment to his descent to the bottom of the sea?

John Milton’s Satan has his aesthetic appeal, and readers of Paradise Lost may find themselves rooting for Satan over God. In the world of opera, Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele also has his partisans. But their characterizations do not unsettle us in the same manner as Adams’ do, in Klinghoffer — they are not the product of a politically-explosive brew of contemporary events and art, nor do their creators attempt to “understand” or “humanize” evil, as Adams does.

Many of the complaints leveled against The Death of Klinghoffer dwell upon this “humanizing” of evil. But also potentially disturbing is the alleged juxtaposition, as Klinghoffer’s daughters put it, of “the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.”

The implication of the accusation — as I read it — is a sharp sting: Klinghoffer the man becomes the representative of Jewry — a mere abstraction — killed as recompense for the suffering inflicted by Israelis on the Palestinian people. His individuality, and hence his humanity, recede to the extent to which he becomes a symbol of a fight to which he was never even a party. “Clearly, his death was a kind of crucifixion,” says Adams.

Yet Leon Klinghoffer is portrayed, in Adams’ opera, in all of his individuality and particularity — an embodiment of all that is decent, quotidian and non-political about life. Upon learning of his death, his wife sings of the pain she feels in every part of her body, which she enumerates: “in the liver, and spleen, and heart and brain … and nerve and bone.” The suffering of the heart becomes the suffering of the flesh, a ritualistic rending, through song, of Marilyn’s emotional body — much as her husband’s was rended. The Klinghoffers are no mere abstractions. Their pain is the suffering of particular human beings, in every inch of their flesh.

Adams paints the Klinghoffers as human beings of great decency, in all their blessed singularity — individuals who love as a couple, celebrating their anniversary, engaging not in discussions of geopolitics but delighting in the routines, blandishments, annoyances and simple satisfactions of everyday life as husband and wife. “I forgot my hat,” sings Leon — one of his characteristic utterances. “This was to be our happy time together,” he tells his wife, as they embrace. “We’ll bring home a tan, anyway.”

In the final act, after Leon’s bullet-ridden body has descended to the depths of the sea, Marilyn lovingly folds his clothes, in an empty ship cabin. The heartrending horror which has befallen them — and the sense of waste at the core of lost love — are driven home to viewers, and fetch tears to our eyes. “I knew his face so well,” she sings, to a horde of reporters. “What can part us while I live? He lives in me.” Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer are humanized in Adams’s opera, even heroized. Marilyn has the last word, and her concluding aria is among the most moving in modern opera. She redeems Adams’s opera, even as the opera discounts the moral categories of punishment and redemption, just war and terrorism, innocence and guilt. A heart lies at the heart of darkness, after all, and it is the heart of Marilyn Klinghoffer.

“We all suffer,” Marilyn sings, and yet the crooked timber of humanity endures. “I grieve as a pregant woman grieves — for the unseen, long-imagined son … The remembered man, rising from my heart into the world to come: It is he whom the Lord will redeem when I am dead.” A new Adam, fresh as the morning, may yet arise from suffering — such is the hope bestowed by Klinghoffer.

The Death of Klinghoffer affirms what nearly all operas proclaim: Love and death are two sides of the same coin, and arias ring out with the bittersweet accents of farewell. Woolf’s demon is not silenced, try as Adams might, and the demon’s mouthpiece becomes a deeply grieving widow who elevates Klinghoffer into something that its critics, myself included, never expected: A humane work of art, inescapably demanding of our attention, affirming the infinite worth and decency of ordinary human beings bound to each other by the everyday blessings of lifelong love.

Bob Stump is chairman of Phoenix Opera, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, and a former three-term member of the Arizona House of Representatives.  The views expressed here are his own.  You can follow him on Twitter at @bobstump.