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Just Bad Art

New York
The Metropolitan Opera House
10/20/2014 -  & October 24, 29, November 1, 5, 8,* 11, 15, 2014
John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer
Paulo Szot (The Captain), Christopher Feigum (The First Officer), Leon Klinghoffer (Alan Opie), Marilyn Klinghoffer (Michaela Martens), Maria Zifchak (Swiss Grandmother), Theodora Hanslowe (Austrian Woman), Kate Miller-Heidke (British Dancing Girl), Sean Panikkar (Molqi), Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Ryan Speedo Green ("Rambo"), Jesse Kovarsky (Omar), Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, David Robertson (conductor)
Tom Morris (production), Tom Pye (sets), Laura Hopkins (costumes), Jean Kalman (lighting), Finn Ross (video), Mark Grey (sounds), Arthur Pita (choreographer)

(© Ken Howard)

"See it, then decide," boldly announces a Metropolitan Opera advertisement for its most newsworthy production in recent memory. John Adams's controversial The Death of Klinghoffer attempts to explore the human dimensions of the October 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of one of its passengers, the elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish American tourist Leon Klinghoffer. Angry criticism has descended on the opera since its world premiere in Brussels in 1991. Its opponents have long argued that it contains offensive anti-Semitic content and "explains" or even "glorifies" terrorism to such a degree that it should be proscribed and struck from public performance. But the volume of invective has never vaulted to the heights it reached in New York this fall. Indeed, when this very production, by Tom Morris, opened at the English National Opera in London in February 2012 (the Met and ENO share it), the controversy drew just one protestor who seemed to be ignored by everyone else. Months before the Met's current season even opened, however, an unexpected barrage of outrage caused Met General Manager Peter Gelb, then under enormous pressure in contract negotiations with the Met's labor unions, to cancel the opera's planned radio and HDTV cinema broadcasts. The stage show nevertheless went on when the company presented its production premiere on October 20. This time several hundred protestors gathered to deride the work. Signs screaming "Metropolitan Nazi Opera" and "Propaganda Masquerading as Art" greeted a nervous first-night audience. Leon Klinghoffer's daughters Lisa and Ilsa denounced the opera in a printed statement that the Met included in the program, stating that the work "sullies the memory" and "rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father." Hecklers had to be removed by security personnel. Even three weeks later - at the sixth performance, which is under review here, - a couple of protestors were still seen distributing leaflets to curious passersby under the watchful eye of the NYPD. Neither the premiere nor any other performance was disrupted, but all the negative attention seems to have been a boon for the Met's suffering box office. Less well-known contemporary operas like Klinghoffer tend to sell poorly, but this nearly sold out performance teemed with an unfamiliar audience of earth-tone clad bourgeois bohemians trying hard to look socially conscious.

Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer's feelings notwithstanding, many Klinghoffer haters have by their own admission remained ignorant of what they stand so vehemently against. Since they feel that Klinghoffer should not be performed, most obviously have not and will not attend a performance, listen to the music, read the libretto, or engage the opera in any other way beyond blindly objecting to it. If they did, they would surely realize that the work glorifies nothing and no one, not even art (more below). The terrorist characters are completely unsympathetic. Their leader is a cruel, vengeful tyrant ruled by anger. His men are naive and easily led youths who end the evening complicit in the murder of an innocent old man. It is true that the libretto gives them "back stories" that "explain" their rage, but to explain is not to excuse. What antagonist lacks a back story, especially in opera? When the captain of the Achille Lauro suggests to one of the terrorists that he might engage in dialogue with his Israeli enemies to find a peaceful solution, the latter replies that for him dialogue would mean the end of hope and the end of life. Is this really rational, romantic, and legitimate? As the character of Leon Klinghoffer himself declares in an Act II monologue addressed to his captors, such implacable hatred can never rationalize, romanticize, or legitimize. To any sane person, including one about to be killed, it merely horrifies. That is the whole point of terrorism. And the characters who indulge in it in The Death of Klinghoffer are absolute and unmistakable villains from beginning to end.

As for the opera's supposed "anti-Semitic" character, both the Anti-Defamation League and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (seen in the premiere's audience) have publicly stated that Klinghoffer is not anti-Semitic. (The ADL did at the same time raise concerns to the Met that the opera could "enflame" anti-Semitism in places where it already exists). In my experience of the work, first at the ENO and now at the Met, it was limited to a couple of lines in which murderous, gun-toting terrorist madmen spout standard anti-Semitic stereotypes (that Jews are "avaricious" and "control America"). As the ADL itself announces on its website, it is the characters who are anti-Semitic, not the work. I wondered how their extreme brutality and unapologetic violence could recommend their prejudice as valid, understandable, or worthy of emulation by anyone, especially members of an opera audience. Does the auto-da-fe scene in Verdi's Don Carlo (returning to the Met later this season) rationalize burning heretics and glorify the Spanish Inquisition? Of course not. It does exactly what Klinghoffer does to the terrorists: it makes them look cruel and despicable. When Don Carlo appeared at the Met in the 1950s, it was criticized by Catholic groups for giving their faith bad press, not by anti-Catholics who argued that it endorsed heretic burning simply by presenting it on stage. Indeed, with Klinghoffer, it is actually the Palestinians who could make a credible case with the "I'm offended" card. After all, their sole depiction in the entire world of opera reduces them to terrorists and, in their opening chorus, a hateful mob bent on revenge (see photo).

If people do legitimately wish to protest anti-Semitism on the operatic stage, it is curious that the same groups who protested Klinghoffer are not planning similar demonstrations against Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which opens in a Met revival only a few weeks from now and arguably does contain real anti-Semitic content. But at present there is no sign of any planned protest, and it seems that Wagner's opera will go on without incident and be broadcast on the radio and at the movies.

The real problem with Klinghoffer is common to most political art. Rather than exploring human drama and feeling for what they really are, it reduces action to pantomime and characters to puppets. Their sole and often painfully obvious purpose is to indicate some urgent problem with a variation of "See this? This is bad. And you should agree!" In Klinghoffer's case the problem is terrorism. But I did not leave the theater feeling provoked to greater contemplation or more emotionally moved to oppose terrorism than I already did. Adams's score only highlighted the weakness of this facile approach. Subordinating musical expression to the political message, it is dominated by the kind of outdated 1980s minimalism and low range orchestral undulations that make so many contemporary opera scores sound like movie music or, perhaps worse, alike. In Klinghoffer the problem is unfortunately so acute that at times the opera can only be advanced through plot narrations projected on an on-stage screen, the functional equivalent of cue cards in a silent film. Beyond the many longueurs, in moments where the drama could be profound, the orchestra is banal. In moments where the drama is banal, the orchestra tries to be profound.

Fine casting of what could be called an ensemble piece did reveal some vocal talent, even if it had to work within the limitations of the score and libretto. The title role itself indicated both this strength and these limitations. Alan Opie's resonant baritone served Leon Klinghoffer so well that I doubted it was really a good idea to have the character remain silent through the entire first half of the opera. Paulo Szot's Captain and Sean Panikkar's terrorist character Molqi were the other strongest standouts. The Met's chorus delivered its music with consistent power. Morris's production relied heavily on video and other digital abstractions that were technically well executed but suppressed the music and drama into even paler relief. David Robertson's conducting did what it needed to do on a professional level, though it was hard to call the evening enjoyable.

I saw it. Then I decided: neither anti-Semitic nor pro-terrorist. Just bad art.

Paul du Quenoy



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