Controversy surrounded the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to invest in a production of John Adams’ 1991 Death of Klinghoffer, which opened in New York on October 20, 2014 about the murder of Mr. Klinghoffer during the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. Klinghoffer’s family, through the ADL, objected to the Met’s decision to perform the opera. A compromise was reached: the opera would have eight performances but its previously scheduled HD live international theater transmission would be canceled and back story information about the hijacking would be inserted in the program. Cries of limits on artistic freedom on the one side and charges of the composer’s and librettist’s bias on the other ensued.
The controversy about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, confuses artistic freedom with artistic license.
First, the title of the opera: THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER. Mr. Klinghoffer did not just die, he was murdered. The decision not to title the opera, THE MURDER OF KLINGHOFFER, speaks volumes about John Adams’ and the librettist, Alice Goodman’s, motivations. This is confirmed by Goodman’s revelation in her 2012 interview in The Guardian:
“All the hostages had been moved on to the top of a covered swimming pool,” she said. “Mr. Klinghoffer’s wheelchair would not go up there. He was shot below decks and his body thrown into the sea. I think in many ways he was killed as a wheelchair user more than anything else,” she says.
In Adams’ 2008 autobiography he reveals a similar moral confusion as to why Mr. Klinghoffer was murdered. “One had to wonder why,” writes Adams, “of all the passengers on the ship, this seventy-year-old man in a wheelchair was the one chosen to be sacrificed. Had Klinghoffer, possibly believing his handicap would protect him from violence, spoken his mind too openly to his abductors, saying something that the other passengers might not have dared articulate?”
Adams probably lifted this interpretation from Muhammed Zaidan (whose nom de guerre is Abu al-Abbas), the leader of the hijackers, who told the Boston Globe that Klinghoffer “created troubles. He was … inciting and provoking the other passengers. So the decision was made to kill him.”
The widow of Abu al-Abbas told the British journalist Robert Fisk in 2013 that “Klinghoffer made so much noise onboard that he frightened the living daylights out of the four young men. Panicking, they shot him and then threw him overboard.”
So there we have it, stripping down motivations to their essence. According to the opera’s creators and his killers, if only he had been more compliant, not confined to a wheel chair, and not so obstreperous, Klinghoffer probably would not have been murdered. The responsibility for Mr. Klinghoffer’s death is his. This is reminiscent of raped women who are blamed because of their behavior.
Goodman reinforces this by painting Klinghoffer in her words as “touchy, vulgar bourgeois” without any apparent factual basis for dredging up this cheap stereotype. Furthering this revealing characterization of the Klinghoffers, and preparing the audience for the emotional imbalance in the opera, Adams and Goodman decided to delete a piece originally written that had them prior to their fated voyage in a scene reminiscent of Molly Goldberg, exuding stereotypical Jewishisms, without Goldberg’s generosity of spirit.
Adams is perplexed by his critics for what he calls their “complaint,” in his words that “the hijackers were treated at times like heroes … evoked in especially stirring music while Marilyn Klinghoffer’s first aria is a laundry list of her medical problems” – in fact she had terminal cancer and knew this would be her last trip with her husband – “making her sound like just another cranky, complaining retiree.”
Adams defends the opera’s moral posture with reference to the parallel “suffering” choruses between Palestinian and Jewish. They are not equivalent, however. The Palestinian suffering in the choruses is immediate, in real time, happening now, or in the recent past. The Jewish chorus is more abstract, about old sufferings – from medieval to holocaust. This sets up an emotional discordance central to the opera’s dramaturgy.
Here is a thought experiment. What if instead of a non-cooperative Jew, who argued with his captors, the victim was gay, wheel-chair bound, traveling with his aids-ridden terminally ill partner, murdered at the behest of anti-gay bigots who hijacked a cruise ship. All this is incorporated in an opera of exquisite music accompanied by a thrilling libretto. The murder, at the hands of hijacking bigots, portrays the killers in a transcending chorus, conveying upon them a sympathetic halo as was written for the Palestinian hijackers in the Klinghoffer opera. Should or would it be performed, notwithstanding its artistic merit?
Howard M. Wachtel is American University professor emeritus of economics, founding director of American University’s Center for Israel Studies and an opera devotee.