This week, the New York Metropolitan Opera and general manager Peter Gelb cancelled simulcasts of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. (NB: They’re still performing it live.) Gelb and the Met were concerned about accusations of anti-Semitism that have been cast on the opera, which depicts the true story of a terrorist hijacking of a passenger liner in 1985. The passengers on the ship were both Israeli and Palestinian, and the hijackers were affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Front. Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish man, was shot by the hijackers, and his body was thrown overboard.
The events on which the opera is based occurred nearly thirty years ago. The opera premiered nearly twenty-five years ago. Is it really “too soon” for the arts to address these issues? I would argue that it is never too soon to start talking about something. If you don’t want to listen, don’t buy a ticket.
Those arguing against the opera (and in favor of the Met’s decision) say that Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism or elevates extremists in some way or another. Either these people have not seen or read about the opera, or they are willfully misunderstanding it. I saw a beautiful new production of it at Opera Theater St. Louis in 2011. If you aren’t familiar, take a moment to listen to some (thanks, Spotify!). You won’t regret it.
The work opens with two choruses, sung back-to-back: “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of the Exiled Jews.” It acknowledges that the struggle between this two groups is deeply rooted, it has touched the lives of millions of people. Furthermore, it presents the first of several uncomfortable truths: that nobody is without fault and nobody is without suffering. Only a very naïve person could believe otherwise.
One of the things I love about opera, and other kinds of storytelling, is the way it plays with what I think of as the “cultural scale” of a character. We often get to see larger-than-life characters treated as regular people, as in Wagner’s pantheon of mythical characters in The Ring. Other times, we get to see regular people treated as tragic heroes, as in the starving artists of Puccini’s La Bohème.
Throughout The Death of Klinghoffer, the audience gets to know some of the characters involved in the eponymous act. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s an opera about a terrorist act, and some of the characters are terrorists. Klinghoffer is in an interesting position regarding the scale of its characters. They actually were regular people. Then, they got on a boat, and their lives changed. They went from being regular people to being characters in history books and Wikipedia pages. Now, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman have the interesting task of turning them back into people. The audience is forced to confront a terrorist on a personal level. The opera tells us “These people do evil things. But they’re people just like you. They have needs and wants and desires just like you. But some of their needs, wants, and desires involve acts of terrorism.” This turns these comic-book-scale supervillains into people. This is another very uncomfortable truth because it forces each of us to consider: Am I capable of that kind of evil? In Tweet-length: The Death of Klinghoffer isn’t an opera about religion. It’s an opera about people. See there, I even left you 55 characters for hashtags or whatever the kids are doing these days.
Here’s the thing, though. Art often makes us uncomfortable. In some sectors of the arts, making the audience uncomfortable is seen as a feature, not a bug. Making us uncomfortable helps us to think about things in new ways, see sides of the world and ourselves differently. If we are to argue that art has a purpose and relevance in contemporary society, we should focus on this artistic function.
Also, let’s not confuse the intentions with a character with the personal beliefs of the creator. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but if you run into Bryan Cranston on the street, he’s probably not going to sell you any crystal meth. The presence of antisemites in Klinghoffer does not make it or its creators into antisemites. People don’t protest performances of Don Giovanni because it advocates misogyny. Grown-ups understand that Giovanni is an asshole, but that he’s also a character distinct from the actor, composer, director, and all the real people that go into creating an opera character.