The Guardian took me to the opera!
I attended the opening night of the opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which has stirred up passions here in New York City, as part of a panel of respondents for The Guardian. Below is my take (click here for the original publication):
The problem with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of The Death of Klinghoffer isn’t that it’s antisemitic. Some grotesque antisemitic statements are made during the performance, especially by Rambo, the most degenerate of the hijackers of the Achille Lauro. But his antisemitism is offered as proof of his depravity, and if you can’t tell the difference between a character’s lines and the larger message of a work of art, you’re probably better off watching reality TV.
But there is a problem, though it’s also not that the opera is skewed to the hijackers, as some protesters have suggested. The emotional heart of the opera is Leon Klinghoffer’s wife Marilyn, whose shattering final aria — beautifully sung by Michaela Martens — ends with the words “They should have killed me/I wanted to die.” How can the audience not empathise with her terrible loss?
Nor is the problem that this production seeks to rationalise or humanise terrorism. Art should never shy away from the muck of the world, and to understand something is not the same as to condone it. But while the Palestinians may be afforded some rather limited depth – the hijacker Mamoud especially – the Palestinians are mostly lurking figures of vengeance, and this production is still firmly ensconced in a theatrical tableau of dark-skinned men with guns terrorising innocent whites.
This is not to say that Klinghoffer should not be staged. As an opera, it’s thrilling and dynamic. But it’s flawed.
The racial dynamic is not the problem, though. History is. Klinghoffer’s claim to artistic relevance is that it’s based on a real event, and the opera proudly announces itself as historically intelligent by beginning with narratives of Palestinian and Israeli history in two different but parallel choruses: the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the chorus of exiled Jews, gesturing to a fearful symmetry between Israeli and Palestinian experiences. But false symmetry creates false history here.
Palestinian history in Klinghoffer is staged as Muslim only – and only as fundamentalist Muslim, which is wrong and dangerous. The group that carried out the Achille Lauro operation, the Palestinian Liberation Front, was a Marxist-Leninist faction, an offshoot (twice removed) of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was led by the Christian Palestinian George Habash. But if you watched Klinghoffer, you’d have no idea Marxist Palestinians even existed, or that Christian Palestinians were at the forefront of much of the Palestinian national movement.
In fact, by the end of the first chorus, each of the Palestinians is raising a finger (a symbol used by Isis, no less) while parading plain green proto-Hamas flags around the stage. Why green flags over the Palestinian flag? Why does the Palestinian chorus end with “Our faith will take the stones he broke/And break his teeth,” as if Palestinians are only of one faith? And why does the Palestinian woman in Muslim clothing push Omar to killing for Islam? Are all Palestinians Muslim, and all Muslims violent?
Klinghoffer wants to collapse the complexities of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians into a timeless religious battle between Muslims and Jews.
Like the next guy, I find it annoying when historians pedantically tell you which little facts are wrong in a work of art based on history, but my point is not about the details. By suggesting that this conflict is based in religion and not in territory, Klinghoffer removes much of the history (and people) of this conflict and replaces it with a mythic clash of civilisations. Ironically, this is the same clash of civilisations that was driving the protesters outside the opera house last night.