The problem with The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera that drew protests at the Met this week, is not that it’s evil but that it’s bad. Since its 1991 premiere, the opera’s detractors have criticized its sophomoric treatment of history, juvenile musical and textual lionization of terrorism, and perilous attempt to rationalize or justify the callous murder of a disabled Jewish man by Palestinian terrorists. All of these criticisms have some truth to them; but the real problem with Klinghoffer is that it is unnecessary, muddled and artistically inadequate.
In an article written shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, music critic Richard Taruskin identified a few different currents that came together in Klinghoffer. One is a kind of artistic masochism or machismo, in which the arbiters of taste and quality ask for credit and praise for consuming art that no ordinary person would enjoy, art that gives “answers and understanding,” instead of “comfort” (Taruskin responds: what answers? and what’s so bad about comfort?). The other current Taruskin mentions is the elision between forbearance and censorship. Taruskin cites the Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of choruses from Klinghoffer. This was scheduled for November 2001, but the Symphony’s directors canceled it after 9/11, perhaps because they felt that it was not the right time for a musical examination of the terrorist psyche. For Taruskin, this is forbearance, or “self-control,” not censorship; decency and comfort rather than an arrogant insistence on “answers.”
The difference is absolutely essential. Taruskin mentions then-current reports of the Taliban government of Afghanistan banning music; this is censorship. For private groups to ask an opera company to reconsider performing an opera widely held to be anti-Semitic in the wake of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States, as they are doing now, is not a call for censorship. It’s a call for self-control.
Of course, some that despise Klinghoffer actually are calling for censorship. The New York Times’ biased reporting on the protest delights in pointing out the vocal crazies who are calling for the set to be burned down and the participating artists to be blacklisted. The news coverage repeatedly mentions that most of the protestors have not seen the opera, which is an easy and effective way to make them look provincial and irrational (of course the protests took place before the first performance at the Met, which would make an informed critique of this particular show available only to those invited to see rehearsals). These yokels cannot understand the difference between an opera that portrays violence and an opera that endorses it, they sigh: “Tom Morris... said that while the opera dramatizes terrorism, it does not endorse it any more than Verdi’s “Macbeth” endorses killing kings.” There are problems with this construction when it comes to Klinghoffer, which often does not seem to know what it’s endorsing and what it’s criticizing.
The NYT report picks out the literally fiery speech of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who called for the burning of the set and the cancellation of the performance—“You spent millions of dollars on that set to promote an opera which celebrates terrorists and celebrates anti-Semitism. You will be made to destroy that set!” The Times reporter places Wiesenfeld and his fellow protester Laurie Cardoza-Moore in the context of two recent controversies—Wiesenfeld’s protest of Tony Kushner’s honorary degree at CUNY, and Cardoza-Moore’s attempt to block the construction of a mosque in Tennessee.
The reporter identifies Cardoza-Moore specifically as a member of a pro-Israel Christian group and Wiesenfeld as a man who objected to playwright Kushner’s criticism of Israeli policy; clearly we are supposed to discount these two voices because they belong to Zionists, the deadliest insult imaginable to The New York Times. Their criticism, it follows, must stem from hatred of Arabs and Palestinians rather than any legitimate objection to the contents of the opera.
The problem with this glib, smirking, undeniably effective journalistic technique, besides its fundamental dishonesty, is that it fails to recognize that one might legitimately object to the content of the opera, which is simply not very good, and is as offensive to the Palestinians as it is to Jews or Americans. The libretto shows a truly sad and juvenile, and particularly British, form of orientalism (the librettist, Alice Goodman, was born in the Midwest but was living in England when she wrote the book): in Klinghoffer exotic Middle Easterners (the Palestinians) are good, heroic and admirable, if at times misguided or enraged; familiar Middle Easterners (Jews) are grasping, nasty, venal people. The Palestinians in the opera sing in short, numinous phrases that could’ve come from Fitzgerald’s masterly translation of The Iliad. What they sing is an embarrassing retread of Arab clichés, all fig trees and quiet contemplation:
The house was built of stone
With a courtyard inside
Where, on a hot day, one
Could sit in shade
Under a tree, and have
A glass of something cool.
Sweet, generic memories. Goodman’s Palestinians are unsophisticated; or, they are a racist caricature of the mystical, passionate, timeless, problematically feminine Arab that Edward Said diagnosed so famously in Orientalism. Nothing about the libretto suggests that Goodman knows much about Palestinian culture. Compare her Palestinians to the deeply familiar Jews and Europeans in the work, whose concerns with material things and comfort come off decidedly badly against the terrorists’ dramatic quest for revenge (Justin Davidson’s brilliant analysis of the opera disagrees with this assessment, perhaps persuasively). The Arabs in Klinghoffer are imaginary creatures invented to please a pretentious middle-class audience that might get a thrill from the safe danger of identifying with a murderer contained in the ultra-sophisticated form of a modern opera.
An embarrassing 2012 interview with the author shows the level of intellectual and historical commitment of the libretto. Goodman complains to a sympathetic reporter that Klinghoffer was supposed to be part of a trilogy that would’ve continued in an opera about the Branch Davidian massacre at Waco (with a lead role for Janet Reno) and another opera on the life of Elian Gonzalez; if one is an expert on Israel-Palestine already, why not become an expert on cults and Cuba?
There’s nothing wrong with writing diverse librettos. Verdi, for instance, composed operas on all sorts of subjects (the Inquisition, 16th century Mantua, Macbeth’s Scotland), but his librettists were interested in communicating emotional and social events, always the heart of operatic expression, in a mythical, heightened artistic form divorced from place and time. Verdi didn’t want to teach his audience about the depredations of the Inquisition when he wrote the Grand Inquisitor aria for Don Carlo. He wanted to present a work of musical art, not a history lesson. Klinghoffer wants to get credit for both.
Artistic forms evolve, and only a reactionary would cry out that opera must reject politics; but only a moron or very naive person would claim that opera, as a genre, is well suited to instructing its audience in complex political and historical questions. And indeed we see that the Klinghoffer’s few, feeble gestures towards this goal are unsuccessful:
You are all wolves,
Wolves without teeth.
You should think of death,
But you meditate
On dirty meat,
And your own unclean flesh.
Are you English?
Your Balfour Declaration
Led to the partition
And the dissolution
Of the Palestinian nation.
Where English is spoken
You will find perversion
And all kinds of filth
Not practised by stealth
Late at night,
But on the street
During the day.
You wink at sodomy.
You laugh at blasphemy.
You give no charity
To the oppressed.
What did your watch cost?
Is it solid gold?
How many mouths could be filled
If this were sold.
One might argue that this passage represents the terrorist’s point of view and is not necessarily to be believed as factual or accepted as valid criticism; but we get no balancing history lessons from the opera’s Jewish characters. As Edward Rothstein noted in 1991, “There is no Israeli position here.”
Goodman tells the interviewer that she told her spiritual director (now a member of the Anglican clergy) that people hated her libretto because “the bad people in it are not entirely bad and the good people are not entirely good.” This may be the case, but it’s also missing the point, and, naturally, insulting the opera’s critics’ supposed lack of sophistication. This complaint is especially strange in the context of the Western canon of opera, which features almost exclusively ambiguous heroes and villains: Don Giovanni, Othello, Violetta Valery, Orpheus, Wotan, The Queen of the Night, Figaro, etc. Not to mention Samiel, the hypnotically evil (and decidedly Hebrew) spirit of Der Freischutz; or Pegleg, his swaggering modern analog in Tom Waits and William Burroughs’ delirious rock-opera The Black Rider. All of these characters are ambiguous, not entirely good or bad, yet none of their operas have drawn the criticism that Klinghoffer has.
Klinghoffer and its producers want to have it both ways. The librettist, composer and producer put on a politically-charged performance but they don’t want anyone to object seriously or take offense. The opera itself wants to remain firmly within the traditional, mythical operatic realm of high emotion and aesthetic beauty, but it also wants to comment, again in a middle-class-pleasing counterintuitive way, on basically current politics. This is a severe problem that the libretto has not overcome.
Compare this clumsy work with Aeschylus’ The Persians, one of the earliest surviving Greek tragedies, a drama that treats the Persian king Xerxes and his armies with sympathy only a few years after their war with Greece; but it does not excuse the war, or attempt to beatify Xerxes. It treats Persians and Greeks alike with discernment and compassion. Klinghoffer cannot rise to this level. Or look more recently to Bartok’s Gothic opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, which features an exquisite aria called “The Torture Chamber” and presents a compelling, spellbinding portrait of Bluebeard himself, a French mythical figure based on the vilely evil historical child murderer Gilles de Rais. Bluebeard’s libretto dwells on horror, violence and darkness, but it does so in an intensely metaphorical way that, although it says a great deal about men, women, marriage, and blood, says nothing about any specific man or woman and certainly makes no comment on recent politics. And of course the violence and horror of Bluebeard is hardly alone in the operatic canon. But it is not violence and horror to which Klinghoffer’s detractors object.
Like most of the critics of Klinghoffer, I’m not calling for a ban on its performance, nor am I clamoring for punishment, judicial or extracurricular, for its stars and producers. My objections, which may seem quaint or parochial, are to the libretto, which is simply in bad taste. The modern, minimalist musical score is not my cup of tea either, but others cited in this article have analyzed much better than I could (most find it artistically worthy, though Taruskin worries that its frequent citations of the Bach Passions might be a serious thematic mismatch, or something worse).
In short, I do not like the opera. I find its message muddled and sophomoric and therefore offensive on an intellectual and aesthetic level. And I particularly object to the work’s proponents’ complaining that audiences that dislike Klinghoffer are just not sophisticated enough to get it, and that calls for forbearance and good taste are in fact brutal, fascist censorship. Following the cancellation of the Boston performance the composer whined to The Guardian: “Not long ago our attorney general, John Ashcroft, said that anyone who questioned his policies on civil rights after September 11 was aiding terrorists; what Taruskin said was the aesthetic version of that. If there is an aesthetic viewpoint that does not agree with his, it should not be heard. I find that very disturbing indeed.” That is not all what Taruskin said. He called for self-control, not state control.
We’ve known for a long time that ambiguity in art is fertile and vital. But Klinghoffer’s brand of ambiguity is juvenile, silly, and equally offensive to Jews and Palestinians; it embodies the easy counter-cultural obnoxiousness of the high school anarchist poseur; it responds to questions that no one has asked, and its beauty is so awfully mixed with ugliness, that it can’t be saved.