Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer) and Jesse Kovarsky (Omar) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaMixed Emotions.
There's a lot of post-9/11 baggage on this cruise.
by Lisa McKeown, Senior Contributor
The very controversial opera, John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, is currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera (Met) in NYC. The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. In the course of events, they shoot Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish man who was celebrating his wedding anniversary, throwing his body and his wheelchair overboard.
Whether or not something is offensive often comes down to how something is depicted, rather than the fact that it is depicted.
I say controversial because it is being accused of glorifying terrorism, and of being anti-semitic. The program even contains a letter from Klinghoffer's daughters, stating that while they support the arts and the ability of narrative to explore troubling topics, that this opera "presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father." While I disagree with the latter half of the statement, the first half is precisely on point.
The opening scenes powerfully portray the emotional history of Israel and Palestine: a history of displacement, of loss, of some attempt at retrieving what had been taken. The lyrics were personal, but they were not those of any particular individual. Sung by the chorus, they ended up occupying both the public and private senses of emotional and cultural memory, and helped to frame the story by setting up the deeply entrenched personal, social, and cultural weight of the conflict.
The clash in the opera's aims also emerged in the directorial choices in relation to the hijackers. A friend noted that they were extremely typecast in a way that might evoke our post 9/11 nightmare images of terrorists. What this ends up doing is reinforcing our current ideas about terrorism, instead of doing what the opera ostensibly wants to do, which is to consider the attack in a poetic way, in a way that encourages imaginative reflection on deeper truths. Since having that conversation, I've wondered about how 9/11 might be framing how we see this production, and how it might have been directed with a view to going against some of the cultural assumptions we have, instead of buying into them. My own experience of the production must have been consciously and unconsciously biased by current ideology in ways that probably don't even occur to me. So much so, in fact, that the final scene with the disembarking of the hijackers is absolutely baffling.
Running time: 3 hours including intermission