Michael Maiello's picture

    Review: The Death of Klinghoffer

    Last night, we went to see The Death of Klinghoffer at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  We’re new to opera.  We went to our first show, La Boheme last month.  This exploration of a new, for me, art form is quite invigorating and so far the Met’s productions are top notch and the opera house at Lincoln Center is just a beautiful place to spend an evening.  As a matter of pure art, I am totally convinced by composer John Adams and I’d definitely jump at the chance to see Nixon in China or Doctor Atomic.

    But this is more than a matter of art.  BBC has a solid round-up of the critical response, including a whole lot of people who object to the subject matter at hand which is the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists who, in the course of events, murder the wheel-chair bound Leon Klinghoffer.  To me, as a writer, I find the most interesting objection that this story deals with living people, that Adams wrote it over the objections of Klinghoffer’s surviving daughters and that he is basically mining a private tragedy in a public forum.  The objection that the story is anti-Semitic or that it justifies terrorism by giving voice to the Palestinians interests me less, but is also important.

    On the first point, Leon Klinghoffer was a man taking a vacation with his wife.  They were not public figures and never aspired to it.  We know Klinghoffer’s name because history landed on his life.  When his daughters say that he wouldn’t want this, we have to believe them (and that’s no stretch for me).

    For a long time, the typical subjects of drama and epic theatre have been mythology and celebrity.  Tragedy has particularly been the domain of larger than life figures – Agamemnon, Lear or a numbered Richard while comedy has been the seat of the everyman buffoon from Kaufman and Hart to Seinfeld.  It was Death of a Salesman that, in the American theatre anyway, first tried to elevate the plight of the normal person to become the subject of Aristotelian tragedy.  In that sense, Adams is working well within the American tradition here by making Klinghoffer’s death the subject of a proper tragedy.  The important difference is that Willy Loman never existed and has no surviving children while Klinghoffer existed and has family.

    In classic theatre, written and performed during darker times where a playwright or director might well lose their freedom or head over what happens on stage, the appeal to myth or celebrity allowed for commentary on current events without naming names.  Shakespeare didn’t live a full a free like between Elizabeth and James without being clever, though he certainly took risks (Doc Cleveland, I invited you to elaborate in the comments below).

    Our world is not the classic world.  We have 24-hour cable news and the internet.  Adams was working at the birth of all that but definitely within the confines of enveloping media.  Our artists no longer have Shakespeare’s luxury of reaching back hundreds of years for analogues because those analogues will not resonate with a modern audience used to news on demand (or, news even without asking).  Arthur Miller’s innovation with Death of a Salesman was incredibly prescient because, decades later, and surely at the time of Klinghoffer’s death, we would have media so ubiquitous that a private figure could be elevated to global significance in short order.

    Klinghoffer never asked for any of this, but it happened.  Adams is working on shared ground because of that.  He does not need permission or endorsement to do it.  It isn’t fair or right, but the murderers who targeted Leon Klinghoffer made the man into a legitimate subject for public discussion.

    Still, this objection would be insurmountable if Klinghoffer had been portrayed in the opera in some sort of bad or even sad light.  Indeed, Klinghoffer’s daughters made this argument in Haaretz:

    “Long ago we resolved never to let the last few minutes of Leon Klinghoffer's life define who he was as a man, husband and father.  Opera patrons will only see Leon Klinghoffer presented as a victim - he was so much more."

    As I saw the show, he was so much more.  The scene that sticks with me most is when he speaks for himself, right to the face of the terrorist who will ultimately end him.  He struggles out of his wheel chair and stands.  He first describes himself and his family as people who have worked, who have tried to do good, who have regretted what they have done wrong and who have lived humbly and gratefully.  Then he accuses his captor of savagery, bloodlust and, most importantly, of dishonesty.  He says that all of his justifications, which span the history of the Palestinian people, including his captor’s own grandfather, are bunk.  He says that they are contrived to justify violence.  In the audience, I believed Klinghoffer.  This was a heroic moment.  The Death of Klinghoffer is a tragedy. Klinghoffer, far from the victim, is the tragic hero.

    This brings us to the issue of justification of terrorism.  Death of Klinghoffer presents the Palestinians as people with motives.  To me, that’s about as far as it goes.  In fiction, there are two kinds of murders: murderers with reason and murders for fun.  The latter are usually presented as natural disasters, wars, diseases, zombies or serial killers – these are the forces of death who cannot be dealt with by reason or bargaining because they kill to kill.  The former are killers who have their own justifications for what they are doing.  Death of Klinghoffer presents the justifications without endorsing them.  Were there an endorsement, I would not be writing this.  But there is merely a presentation.

    What you are left with is that the unresolved problems of the world formed a motive for a small group of people to hijack a cruise ship and to, in cowardly fashion, murder a brave man who had been robbed by fate of the ability to defend himself, throw his body and wheelchair overboard.  I can’t imagine some legitimate system of honor where this would “glorify terrorism.”  It doesn’t.

    I am happy to report that we encountered no protesters at the performance last night and none in the audience.  The talented cast was warmly rewarded at the curtain call.






    Glad to hear you found it like you say. The criticism I had read made me worry that this might be a situation of cheap shot pandering to a politically correct libretto in order to stir up controversy and buzz. That would be sad, I think, because I have always seen, like you do, in the Klinghoffer story a great tragedy, one that resounds with people and makes them think. The story screams for art to interpret it, not just base politics. Rather than cite Death of a Salesman, though, I might go with Euripides or Aeschelysus.

    So glad you hear from you on this, Double A.  I meant that Miller was working in the form of the ancient Greeks and that he succeeded in turning Loman's story into one as significant as Agememnon's.  I think that Klinghoffer does the same for Leon.

    Is the opera industry so desperate that it has joined the mainstream media, the Republican Party, the defense industry and Hollywood in capitalizing on terrorism? And in this case not terrorism in general, but boldly pursuing controversy, and press, by using an actual victim and event?

    Where does this journey into the macabre end? Will the audience demand more of the same from John Adams, perhaps "The Beheading of Daniel Pearl"?

    There really isn't an "opera industry" these days.  The Met is a non-profit, as are most of the major opera companies.  The Death of Klinghoffer was first produced in 1991.  At this point, I'd say that The Met was less boldly pursuing controversy than it was being pursued by it.

    As for the journey into the macabre... The beheading of Daniel Pearl seems to me to be a proper subject for dramatic art, and other art, especially if that art rejects violence as a political tool, as Klinghoffer clearly does.

    I think a similar thing happened in 1998 with Paul Simon's Broadway musical, The Capeman, which was also based on actual events.  The family of the victims made a huge protest against the show claiming it glorified their relative's killer.   While the show was focused on the killer's life, it was not a justification or glorification of murder and did not present the murder as justified in any way.  Rather, it showed an ignorant young man, caught up in the gang lifestyle of the 1950's, who makes a terrible mistake and then spends the rest of his life paying for that mistake.  The family of the victims are shown as grieving and unable to forgive him.  Although it starred Latino heart-throb Marc Anthony, and had a wonderful score, the show had some serious book problems, and closed after a short run.   I have no doubt, however, that the protests definitely shortened the show's initial run and had the effect of convincing some people that they didn't like the show even before they actually saw it.


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