The Metropolitan Opera’s tag line for The Death of Klinghoffer is “See it. Then decide.” It is seldom that an opera provokes as much controversy as this one has over its brief lifetime. The opera had its New York premier at BAM in 1991, just a few years after the terrorist attack that it depicts. I am too young to have any memory of the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, so my viewpoint is necessarily different from those opera goers a generation above me. When I read about the protests on opening night and the contrasting New York Times review, I determined that I simply had to see this for myself.
The opera is in English, which always throws me off a bit as I’m used to reading subtitles and hearing the music without being distracted by individual words within it. The music is very similar to the other piece by John Adams that I’ve seen- Nixon in China. It can be harsh but is not unpleasantly dissonant (unlike Hugo David Weisgall’s Esther, which is actually painful). This trailer will give you a good sense of it, although I think the music loses a lot by being recorded this way; in person it’s much more immediate.
Modern classical music is not for everyone, and purely as a piece of music I don’t know that I would recommend this particular piece. The choral numbers are very powerful but do not move the plot forward and start to feel tiresome as the opera drags into its third hour. The strongest moments in the opera are two of the arias, one in which Klinghoffer confronts the terrorists, and the final aria sung by his wife after she learns of his death. These two characters are, in my opinion, the only really three dimensional characters in the piece. They feel like complete human beings and the audience cannot help but empathize with them. It was astonishing to me that people felt the opera was anti-semitic, when really the only characters who resonate are these two victims. The final aria focuses not on Klinghoffer’s death as a political event, but rather on the loss of a husband, partner and lifelong companion. It is rare that loss at the end of a lifetime together is acknowledged in art. We hear a great deal about the loss of young love, but an older character singing about loss at the end of their life is less common. I felt that this piece was so powerful it could stand entirely on its own.
I had an unusual opportunity a few weeks after seeing the opera to talk about the controversy with none other than one of Klinghoffer’s daughters. Lisa and her sister have been vocal opponents of the opera since its original production at BAM. Lisa happened to be at a social function I was attending and when I mentioned I had seen the opera she told me about her experience with the BAM production. Apparently there was a scene, which has since been removed, portraying a Jewish family as bourgeois and only interested in their own comfort. This scene really skewed the opera’s message in favor of the Palestinian cause and led to Lisa’s feeling that it was anti-semitic and offensive. I told her about my experience with the Met production and she was very touched to hear that the characters of her parents came through so strongly. It was clear that the production she saw had been deeply upsetting for her and for her family. She told me she wished that she could attend the Met production but just felt too scarred by the experience. The idea of her mother’s aria standing alone as a stunning love song was very emotional for Lisa. At the end of the evening she gave me a big hug and told me she was so happy I had enjoyed the opera and that she’d loved hearing about it from my perspective.
It was wonderful to be able to talk to Lisa in person because so much of the dialogue about this opera has been vitriolic. So much of public debate is based on mistrust of the other side and I wish that this opera had been used as more of a conversation starter, and less of a way of dividing groups. Art should provoke conversation and argument. Art should have a message but I don’t believe it should be one of hate, and I don’t think that that is the case with The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera’s run at the Met is finished now but I hope that the next time something controversial comes to the stage the debate will be between two sides that are more respectful of each other’s opinions and more open to having their opinion changed.