Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: opera’s composer, librettist have broader Jewish problem

Click photo to download. Caption: On Sept. 22, 2014, demonstrators protest the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of the anti-Israel opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Credit: Amelia Katzen.
Click photo to download. Caption: On Sept. 22, 2014, demonstrators protest the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of the anti-Israel opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Credit: Amelia Katzen.

One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera.

“Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based on the 1985 murder of a 69-year-old American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, on an Italian cruise ship. Klinghoffer, confined to a wheelchair, was shot in the head by Palestinian Arab terrorists who had hijacked the ship. They dumped his body into the Mediterranean Sea.

The opera repeatedly defames Jews and Israelis as representatives of religious/ethnic or national groups. Nowhere does it similarly criticize Arabs/Muslims as a group. The Met’s intransigent insistence that “Klinghoffer” must be staged has become an organizational calamity.

Adams and Goodman make up an aptly matched pair. Their Jewish problem seems to include an obsession with what they imagine to be Jewish guilt. This should not be surprising on the part of Goodman, perhaps, since during the writing of “Klinghoffer” she rejected her American Jewish heritage and joined the Anglican Church. The church’s leadership has been known in recent years for its hostility toward Israel. Goodman is now a parish priest in England.

But is “Klinghoffer” the only Adams/Goodman opera that contains elements of anti-Semitism, including the stereotypical notion of Jewish guilt?

Consider the Adams/Goodman opera “Nixon in China” (world premiere 1987, Met premiere 2011). It offered relatively humane depictions of President Richard M. Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong—a mass murderer on the scale of a Hitler or Stalin—but not a similarly sympathetic picture of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jew. In a 1988 review of the opera, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page wrote that Kissinger is depicted as “a venal, jabbering, opportunistic buffoon.” Others remarked that Kissinger is portrayed as cruel and cunning.

A bizarre, memorable scene involving Kissinger occurs in the second act. In a propagandistic ballet staged by Madame Mao for the Nixon entourage, First Lady Pat Nixon thinks she sees Kissinger playing an evil landlord savagely whipping a poor village girl. Not seeing Kissinger in the audience or at the Nixon family table, Mrs. Nixon points to the landlord while whispering to her husband, “Doesn’t that look like you-know-who?” Indeed, the singer who plays the role of  Kissinger also plays the role of the evil landlord.

Then there is the Adams opera “Doctor Atomic” (world premiere 2005, Met premiere 2008). Its storyline centers on the Jewish American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, often called the “father of the atomic bomb” for leading the Manhattan Project during World War II. The project developed the nuclear weapons that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 100,000 people and causing Japan to surrender to the U.S., thus ending World War II earlier than would have otherwise been the case. The earlier end potentially saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other lives on both sides.

Adams and librettists Alice Goodman and Peter Sellars depicted Oppenheimer as consumed with guilt and torn with remorse over the horrors brought about by the atomic bomb. Did Adams, Goodman, and Sellars exaggerate here? According to a 1967 New York Timesreport, Oppenheimer was “beset by the moral consequences of the bomb, which, he told fellow physicists, had ‘dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war’ … [but] in later years, he seemed to indicate that the ‘sin’ was not to be taken personally. ‘I carry no weight on my conscience,’ he said in 1961 in reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Defenders of the “The Death of Klinghoffer” seem either unaware or unconcerned about any of the several instances of the opera’s anti-Jewish and inflammatory lyrics. Some of these were cited by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) in an open letter to Met General Manager Peter Gelb on May 29, 2014. The letter helped spark initial protests against staging “Klinghoffer” and resulted in the cancellation of a Nov. 15 large-screen simulcast of the opera that would have been viewed live by hundreds of thousands of people in theaters in 70 countries.

The “Klinghoffer” defenders treat the libretto—the text sung and spoken in the opera—as proving nothing. Instead, they seem to either misunderstand, or misuse as camouflage, the concept of “artistic freedom.” It is possible to defend “Klinghoffer” on artistic grounds, but the art involved is the low variety of the propagandist, not the high art of worthwhile opera. The defenders act as if neither the libretto nor the music matters much. In fact, while the lyrics recycle some of the worst anti-Semitic canards, the music is mediocre and unremarkable except for the propagandistic way it is used by Adams to underscore words of the Palestinian hijackers. This was pointed out by the eminent American musicologist Richard Taruskin in a December 2001 New York Times article strongly condemning the Adams opera, headlined “Music’s Dangers And The Case For Control.”

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is a vehicle for tendentious reiteration of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slurs. But this opera, when considered together with the other two Adams-Goodman opera collaborations mentioned here, represents something more—a prejudicial obsession with Jews.

Myron Kaplan is a senior research analyst for the Boston-based, 65,000-member Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

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