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Klinghoffer at the Met

John Adams’s masterpiece is about an American Jew murdered by Palestinian terrorists, but the real opera is off stage

Paul Berman
October 23, 2014
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Outside the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, New York, Oct. 20, 2014.Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Outside the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, New York, Oct. 20, 2014.Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The crowd of demonstrators outside Lincoln Center on Monday evening consisted of several hundred visibly agitated people, every one of whom appeared to be eager individually, not just en masse, to press the case against the Metropolitan Opera. A lady cried out to me: “Are you going to the opera?” “I am.” “You need to know something. Terror is not art!” “Still, I’m going.” “You look like an intelligent man.” “I am.” “Then why are you going?”

A group of young boys wearing yarmulkes: “The Nazis killed the Jews. You have to understand!” “I am aware.” “These are terrorists!” I nodded. “Klinghoffer was an innocent man!” An older voice, louder: “Klinghoffer was an American! An American!” On the loudspeaker a voice inveighed against Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. “So, how did it come to pass that this hateful production …” Rudolph Giuliani participated in the demonstration. I did not see him.

Someone pressed into my hand a four-page stapled handout attacking The Death of Klinghoffer point by point: the romanticization of the Palestinian terrorists—the hijackers who murdered Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achille Lauro back in 1985 and dumped his body and his wheelchair into the sea. The opera’s false portrayal of Israel’s Jews of 1948. The failure to acknowledge Jewish refugees from the Arab countries. And so forth. A vivid subhead on the handout: “Justifications for The Death of Klinghoffer are lame.” To wit: “The Metropolitan Opera openly acknowledges that the opera ‘looks for the humanity in the terrorists.’ Why??? Would we look for the humanity in the al-Qaeda murderers of thousands of innocent people on 9/11?”

Certain of the handouts seemed less than reassuring on the matter of terror and violence: “Wanted: JEWS WITH GUTS! TO TRAIN IN SELF-DEFENSE AND GUN-TRAINING,” distributed by someone on behalf of the Jewish Defense Organization. The slickest handout of all offered training in “Kaballah for All.” The placards: “I Am Klinghoffer.” “I Am Klinghoffer.” “I Am Klinghoffer.”

The Klinghoffer placards did not seem absurd. The real-life Leon Klinghoffer grew up on the immigrant streets of the Lower East Side and succeeded in moving his family’s Avenue D hardware store to the not-so-elegant precincts of Avenue A and Fourth Street, where he came up with a handy invention for cooking rotisserie, all of which suggests an unpretentious but admirable man of the people; and those were unpretentious people rallying to Klinghoffer’s cause on the pavement across from Lincoln Center.

(Top three: Bryan Thomas/Getty Images; bottom: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
(Top three: Bryan Thomas/Getty Images; bottom: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

To wend one’s way from the noisy demonstration on Columbus across the dismal plaza into the opera house—the chant, “Shame! shame!” wafting ever more distantly from the crowd, a pudgy guy dressed in black with a yarmulke on the brink of physically assaulting someone from the Met management at the door—“I have a ticket!” “I’m not letting you in!”—was to plunge into a hundred years of intra-Jewish class struggle in New York. Here was the war of the Jewish masses against the Jewish elite, even if there are fantasists who regard the people with home-made signs as representatives of a sinister power. It was the Ost-Juden against the German Jews, from olden times. The ghost of Avenue D was having its say. It was the boroughs against Manhattan. The tabloids against the New York Times, of which Gelb, the Met manager, is a scion.

Glass chandeliers ascended, the lights dimmed. Thundering applause for the agile conductor, David Robertson, as he took his place in front of the orchestra—an applause that constituted an unmistakable counter-demonstration, this time in favor of the Met. And, within minutes, it became clear that, of all the performances that John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer will ever receive, the one on Monday night will forever remain the best. It was because of the angry demonstrators on the pavement across the plaza, together with one or two obstreperous infiltrators seated on the upper balconies—just enough to remind the audience that agitated emotions did exist, but not enough to ruin the performance.

Two scenes make up the opening of The Death of Klinghoffer, a “Chorus of Palestinian Exiles,” followed by a “Chorus of Jewish Exiles,” in grand evocation of a tragic history, presented against a sort of newsreel backdrop of flashing years from 1948 to the present. The Palestinian Exiles are dark, clumped together, visibly oppressed, singing of their destroyed houses and their defeat, and their performance is powerful, sung to the churning rhythms, at once stately and frenetic, of the hardworking orchestra. The Jewish Exiles (who are the same choristers, differently costumed) appear to be new arrivals in Israel, bearing their luggage, though why they are called exiles is not entirely clear, given that Jews making aliyah to Israel may consider that exile is behind them. The Chorus of Jewish Exiles goes about planting trees. Their desert blooms.

The Jewish Exiles do not appear to be oppressed. Nor does their own tragic history figure visibly on the stage, even if the sepia lighting (the lighting throughout The Death of Klinghoffer, by Jean Kalman, is quietly extraordinary) gives you the illusion that you are gazing on the historical past. Nor does the nature of the Jewish project conducted by the tree-planting chorus manage to reveal itself in any independent or coherent way. The word “Zionist,” when it appears in Klinghoffer, is used only as an imprecation by Palestinians, an angry graffiti, but not to evoke the decades-long project of physically reconstituting a Jewish state. In short, here is a Chorus of Jewish Exiles who seem to express neither the Jewish tragedy nor Jewish grandeur, but appear merely to embody a Jewish presence that afflicts the Chorus of Palestinian Exiles.

And so, The Death of Klinghoffer sails onward, and a Jewish dimension appears to be missing from the ship, and the omission is obvious from the start. Perhaps the absence stands in place of something worse: The original production of Klinghoffer, back in 1991, is said to have contained yet another opening scene, sandwiched between the twinned Jewish and Palestinian choruses, and longer than the others. This was a scene of American Jewish life, portraying New Jersey friends of the Klinghoffer family in their quotidian pettiness, preoccupied with bodily needs and the almighty dollar—a portrayal of bourgeois Jewish mediocrity. It was this scene, more than anything else in the opera, that aroused the wrath of various music critics at the time, whose newspaper condemnations bestowed upon the opera the ominous reputation that, at least in New York, has lingered ever after.

Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, responded to these criticisms at the time by removing the bourgeois scene from later productions (just as Gelb, in our own moment, at the Met has tried to calm the waters of the present controversy by agreeing not to simulcast the new production: The history of Klinghoffer is a history of tactical retreat). And yet, a harping on Jewish pettiness remains a principle motif of the opera, even without the New Jersey Jews and their living room. The Klinghoffers who are portrayed on stage, the crippled Leon and his wife Marilyn on their vacation cruise, retain their own pettiness for most of the opera, concerned with their medical problems and sunburn and tales of their elderly friends and hip replacements—quite unlike the Palestinian hijackers who commandeer the ship and who regard themselves as men of ideals, indifferent to their own sufferings and faithful to the sufferings of their people. One of the terrorists disdainfully scatters the dollars that Klinghoffer has stuffed in his pants, in plain display of Klinghoffer’s money obsessions (though I should add that Leon Klinghoffer in real life is said to have generously contributed to the social-work settlement projects of his beloved Lower East Side).

And yet Monday night’s performance featured an unscripted and uninvited third chorus, whose members were the demonstrators across the street from the Lincoln Center plaza. These people, the protesters, were a Chorus of Jewish Reality. This third chorus was unruly and sometimes ugly and, to judge from what I heard, often it was misinformed. Politically speaking, I wish those Jewish protesters and their non-Jewish friends had stayed home. Keenly I hope the police department has infiltrated the Jewish Defense Organization. But, artistically speaking, the Chorus of Jewish Reality on the street was a masterstroke. It was the authentic counterpart to the Chorus of Palestinian Exiles on stage. The street demonstrators provided everything that, in regard to the Jews, is missing from The Death of Klinghoffer: the sense of history, a feeling of solidarity, an authentic wrath against the terrorist movements, emotions and sentiments and memories that might sometimes be stupid but, at minimum, are not petty and might even display, from time to time, a nobility. Even the noise made by the protesters complemented the opera: a rumbling tumult, punctuated by audible words sometimes, a jagged rhythm, stripped of any hint of melody but impressive in its relentless oceanic surge, as if composed by Adams himself.


It is true that Klinghoffer looks for the humanity in the terrorists. Is this bad? To look for the humanity of anyone at all cannot be bad, and this would be true even if Klinghoffer manages to overlook a few of the human dimensions of the victims. But to look is not necessarily to find. The opera looks in directions that anyone might suppose to be the obvious places, beginning with the Palestinian sufferings chanted by the Chorus of Palestinian Exiles. Nor do these sufferings disappear from sight as the opera advances. A mysterious veiled woman regales one of the Palestinian terrorists with this history, in order to shore up his resolve. And, in this fashion, the opera’s search for the humanity of the terrorists resorts to the explanation known as “root causes”—the root cause of terrorism being, in this instance, the catastrophe or Nakba that, for a very large number of Palestinians, certainly did occur in 1948. The opera also gazes at the terrorism itself. Klinghoffer is shot onstage, though in the 1991 production he was shot offstage. His murder is visibly unjustified. It is dreadful. On this point the opera is clear.

More: The opera presents a couple of scenes of Palestinian crowds whipping themselves into frenzies of anger with darkly veiled women and giant green flags, which, in the context of our own moment, can only be understood to be the flags of Hamas. These are flags that surely most people in the opera audience will look upon with horror, flags of Islamist hatred and tyranny—even if, here and there among the rows of seats will be found a knuckleheaded philosophy professor who has come to regard Hamas as the latest word in world progress. One of the hijackers shouts, “America is one big Jew!”—which no one will take to be anything but anti-Semitic. The terrorists undertake a “selection” of the ship’s passengers, which leads them to usher the Britons and Americans and the Jews into a separate place, where candidates to be shot can be chosen—and this, too, will not endear the terrorists to the audience.

More sophisticated yet: The opera acknowledges that, in the face of terror, some observers do become, in fact, ingenuous dupes. Among the passengers of the Achille Lauro is a ditzy English dancing girl who feels charmed by a terrorist who is kind enough to provide her with cigarettes; and we are not supposed to view the ditzy girl as anything but ditzy. Still more sophistication, or seemingly so: The terrorist Omar, who murders Klinghoffer, undergoes doubts about his own mission, in plain demonstration that moral impulses will crop up even among the hard-bitten. And more: Klinghoffer, not entirely petty, rouses himself to rebuke the terrorists in a speech that everyone will agree makes good sense.

Here was the war of the Jewish masses against the Jewish elite.

So, I can see why, in gazing on what they have wrought, Adams and his librettist must feel that, all in all, they have been badly misunderstood by their detractors, and that, in fact, they have presented a subtle and nuanced picture, not romantic, not apologetic, but intent on showing why, at times, decent people do sometimes sink into degraded hatreds and gratuitous violence. And yet, in regard to seeking out everyone’s humanity, The Death of Klinghoffer seems to me to run aground on a philosophical shoal. Everything in the opera hangs on the validity of the “root cause” explanation—on the assumption that Palestinian terrorism and violence result from the dispossession of 1948, which means that reasonable or “human” traits attach to even the ugliest aspects. But something in that assumption ought to be questioned. Many millions of people and entire ethnic and religious groups were displaced and exiled in the course of the turmoil that accompanied the end of World War II, and not all of those millions responded by forming terrorist movements, and this reality may suggest that something else, apart from suffering and dispossession, is required for terrorist crazies to emerge.

It is worth reflecting on the terrorism of, say, the monstrous Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the member of the Jewish Defense Organization’s parent group, the Jewish Defense League, who murdered a great many Palestinians in Hebron, back in 1994. What drove Goldstein to do this? Was it the horrors he had undergone in the Brooklyn of his younger years? Or should he be understood with a glance, instead, at the Palestinian violence against Israelis? The Nazis—were they ultimately to blame?

But, no. It would be obscene, in looking at Goldstein, to attribute his violence to someone else. I regard someone like Goldstein as a man who has succumbed to a vice, which in his case is not drugs or a sex craze or gambling or some such ordinary thing but is, instead, the lure of hatred at its most extreme. The cult of murder and death: This is what drew him in. It was not a matter of Jewish oppression in the past or present; it was extremist doctrines about oppression. Not the Palestinians, but his own insane theories about Palestinians, as codified and promoted by the ideologues of the crazies of the Jewish ultra-right.

Mightn’t something similar account for the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer? Not the Nakba and the Palestinian oppression, but the mad and fanatical doctrines conceived by Palestinian nationalists and Islamists about the Nakba and the Palestinian oppression? The whole weight of The Death of Klinghoffer leads us to reflect on the Palestinian sufferings, instead of on the fanatical Palestinian doctrines. And yet, the opera does not rule out a doctrinal explanation. You can point to this lyric or that.


Klinghoffer is the kind of opera that invites elaborate interpretations, but the opera itself is not an elaborate interpretation. It is a moving opera. It is, in fact, a work of art, even if the protesters said otherwise. Its picture of the Jews is partial and unflattering, and its picture of the terrorists leans in the direction of root-cause theory, but these are the assumptions of our present day. If you accept those assumptions, as most people surely do, you can see that a great deal of intelligence has gone into The Death of Klinghoffer. Goodman’s libretto, considered line-by-line, joins together a flair for odd-shaped words with a penchant for vague but impressive-sounding invocations of messianic or religious ideas. The production, under Tom Morris with his set designer and the lighting, manage to make a peculiar alternative or counter to the music, an elegant visual experience, changing and fluid, unlike the sometimes relentless rigidities of the score.

The bubbling of woodwinds or of violins, sometimes the plucking of a large section of contrabasses, sometimes the repeated rhythms of an electric piano—these pulsings and throbs move forward throughout the evening as if in two registers at once, frenetic and grave. Sustained high tones among the violins or flutes lend an air of the celestial that also is an air of hysteria. Where there are melodies, they appear among the middle instruments, among the clarinets or bass clarinets or English horns, while everyone else goes on pulsing. One of the hijackers grows homesick listening to Arab radio broadcasts, and Adams indulges himself by composing oriental arabesques for woodwinds with an occasional harp, as if, tired of his remote inspirations from Bach or Wagner, he had lost himself for a moment in Aida. But those are not high points of the score.

Rhythmic relentlessness is his theme, the chirping and bubbling and percolations of one section of the orchestra after another. The score does not seem to advance harmonically, nor do the tone colors vary according to some forward-motion logic. And yet the score does advance. The nervous gravity acquires weight merely by reiteration. When Adams wishes to intensify the emotion, he turns up the volume. The effect is sometimes cheesy, as if he were conjuring suspense for an action movie. You begin to suspect that he is about to float off into sentimental gush, but the burbling rhythms, by continuing to burble, keep up the tension. He is good at anger. The Palestinian demonstrations and the green-flag waving and the balletically violent gestures (the choreographer is Arthur Pia) are scary to listen to and to watch.

All of this achieves something altogether satisfying in the two climactic arias at the end. Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) sings of his own death, and he is soulful, instead of petty, and the effect is tremendous. And Mrs. Klinghoffer (Michaela Martens) produces a still more gorgeous and powerful and heartbreaking outcry, once she has learned of her husband’s fate, angry and grieving. At these two moments, the composer and librettist seem to have liberated themselves at last from their constricted political understandings, and they throw themselves into the sufferings of individuals, even if they have not been too shrewd at comprehending the psychologies of groups. The sensuality of the voices vanquishes the relentless and liturgical pulsing of the orchestral rhythms. And the Klinghoffers turn out to be serious people.


John Adams came out on stage at the end of Monday night’s performance and received a rousing ovation. It was a triumph for him, given all the protests and controversy. Still, I felt a little sorry for the man. I am not convinced that he knew what he was getting into when he set about composing The Death of Klinghoffer. I suppose that he went into the project with noble intentions, and I am guessing that he studied up on the topic of his opera, and he felt that he had arrived at a sympathetic understanding of the Jews and the Palestinians and the ship captain and of everyone else. And it may never have occurred to him, as it never occurs to anyone, that whole dimensions lay beyond his understanding. I am guessing that he has been dismayed and surprised to see that, while in many parts of the world his opera is regarded as a masterpiece, in Klinghoffer’s hometown entire crowds persist in loathing him, not always inarticulately. Judea Pearl, the father of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, published a letter in the Times a few weeks ago condemning The Death of Klinghoffer, and I would guess that Judea Pearl’s eloquent and furious condemnation must have been, for Adams, lacerating to read. Worse, yet: Klinghoffer’s real-life daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, have never reconciled to the opera. They condemned the opening in 1991, and they have condemned the current production. The opera bill contains a page in which they denounce the work—one more futile effort at appeasement on the part of the opera and its creators and producers.

What can Adams think of this? When his earlier opera Nixon in China opened in 1987, Adams and his collaborators invited the real-life Richard Nixon to attend, which was courteous of them. Presumably Nixon did not much care what was said about him on the stage of an avant-garde opera whose audience contained probably very few Nixon fans. Besides, politicians train themselves to withstand the slings and arrows. But this cannot be true of the family of Leon Klinghoffer, hardware merchant from the Lower East Side. So, the daughters have gone on hurling curses, and Adams has had to put up with it. I almost wonder if he would have written the opera if he had known what was going to happen to him. And yet, of course he would have done so. The burblings and catch-in-the-throat tonalities of Klinghoffer are his masterwork. And so, he, too, is a man who has had to encounter his destiny.

His librettist is another story. Now, here is a theme for opera. Alice Goodman gave an interview to Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian two years ago, which ran under the title, “The Furore That Finished Me.” And, to be sure, Goodman feels intensely sorry for herself. The poor reception of The Death of Klinghoffer in Brooklyn in 1991 shocked her. She had supposed that she had written a masterpiece, but other people supposed otherwise, and afterward she was in a bad way.

“I couldn’t get work after Klinghoffer,” she told the Guardian . “I was uncommissionable.” Really, was that true? In any case, she wrote no more operas. She explained to the Guardian that Peter Sellars came up with the idea for the Klinghoffer opera, and she had worries about taking on the project. “It was made more difficult, if you like, because my parents were still alive—very strong people with strong opinions. My family is observant and I had a proper Jewish upbringing and education.” But she had never been keen about the proper upbringing.

“The Judaism I was raised in was strongly Zionist. It had two foci almost—the Shoah and the State of Israel, and they were related in the same way the crucifixion is related to the resurrection in Christianity. Even when I was a child, I didn’t totally buy that. I didn’t buy the State of Israel being the recompense for the murder of European Jewry, recompense not being quite the right word, of course. The word one wants would be more like apotheosis or elevation.”

Also, she was not impressed by the rabbi that she knew as an 8-year-old in the suburbs of Minneapolis. She believed that her rabbi’s fidelity to Judaism led him to teach a disdain for non-Jews to his Jewish pupils. She told the Guardian: “My infantile brain thought, ‘No, that’s not the right answer.’ That thought is the thing that’s brought me here. And it has to do with Klinghoffer as well.”

The Guardian reporter asked what did she mean by “brought me here.” Her reply: “I mean into holy orders, into the rectory in Fulbourn,” which is a village near Cambridge, England, where Alice Goodman lives with her husband, who happens to be the grand and very Christian poet Geoffrey Hill. She is Fulbourn’s church vicar. “It had nothing to do with writing Klinghoffer really, but I was converted about halfway through writing it.” Converted to Christianity, that is. So, she began writing the opera as at least some kind of a Jew, though with a poor view of Judaism, and she completed it as an Anglican. And she believes, and many people believe, and Peter Gelb believes, that an animus against the Jews does not in any way figure in her opera. And she believes that her detractors have ruined her career. Surely by now, to judge by the Guardian interview, Alice Goodman has come to return the sentiments that are sent her way by the daughters of Leon and Marilyn.

Adams looked pretty cheerful at the Met, soaking up the applause—redeemed, at last, and doubtless genuinely pleased by the performance and by the conductor. His white mane glowed electrically above his avant-gardist’s black uniform. The musicians applauded him from the orchestra pit. I waited for David Robertson to run offstage a second time and drag out one more person to take a bow. This ought to have been the librettist, wearing her own uniform, which requires a vicar’s collar. Is there a librettist anywhere in the world who, having written the book for an opera being presented at the Metropolitan, would pass up the opportunity to come out on stage and gaze at the stacked golden balconies and the four thousand cheering people and take a bow? The audience would have given Alice Goodman the same standing ovation that Adams received. There was nothing to fear. But the vicar of Fulbourn did not make an appearance.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.