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Art and Responsibility
Klinghoffer: A Night At The Opera

John Adams’ Klinghoffer may portray Leon Klinghoffer’s murderers in a more sympathetic light than many might prefer, but it is neither an endorsement of nor an apology for the murder. It is, however, a morally questionable production, as the composer and librettist turned a family’s private grief into a public spectacle—against their will.

Published on: October 21, 2014
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  • Jesse

    Friends I need your help. I have written a new Opera and I need you to help demand that the Metropolitan Opera in New York stage it. It is an opera about the lynching of black people in Alabama and Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan. The opera presents the moral ambiguity of the struggle for self-determination of the Klan members against the harsh and cruel behavior of the pickaninnies. The opera is careful not to pick sides and it presents both sides with musical delight. After the Klansters lynch the darkies, they take off their hoods and paint themselves as minstrel singers to show their common humanity with the dead. I am sure you agree that this is a must performance that the Metropolitan Opera needs to stage! Write the Opera chairman today!

    • johngbarker

      Thanks, Jesse! I think you have clarified for us the moral depravity and inhumanity of our so called elites –anything goes if it makes money and brings praise from the glitterati. I hope this is Adam’s last opera.

    • guest

      Amazing, how our concerned moralist can always find a comparative Black American parody to seek moral equivalence when issue serves their agenda.

    • Corlyss

      Way to go, Jesse! You nailed it!

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      It’s been done in silent film, and it was called Birth of a Nation, by DW Griffith. Unlike Adams’ musical mediocrity, the film is a piece of cinematic genius, though melodramatic by today’s standards. Its sympathy for the KKK was widely criticised when the film was first released, and it is seldom shown today. Guest may now proceed to trash me for daring to suggest that it is just as wrong to murder and slander Jews as it is to murder and slander black people.

  • jeburke

    All in all, I hope the Met loses a lot of money producing this opera.

    • johngbarker

      Maybe enough to shut it down for good.

  • Thirdsyphon

    Not to be snarky, but if the author’s real objection to this production is the “psychological rape” involved in making public hay out of the suffering of private individuals, then isn’t this article itself a contribution to the problem? In fact, isn’t every article purporting to cover this opera an equal affront?

    Ordinarily, the choice of productions for a season at the Metropolitan Opera holds less significance for popular culture than the disposition of Saturn’s moons across the same time frame.

    Don’t believe me? I’d be very interested to know how many of the people who are passionately involved in the debate over The Death of Klinghoffer can name any other current production at the Met. . . or any other opera, period.

    • johngbarker

      Carmen, Figaro, The Magic Flute– I usually watch opera on DVD since I live thousands of miles from New York (thank God). Every once in a while I read a book.

      • Thirdsyphon

        As fun as as it is to imagine that you’ll refrain from further commenting if I say “no,” reality forces me to admit that I lack the power to silence people who say outlandish, offensive things (see, e.g., your comment about wanting to close the Metropolitan Opera forever) that I happen to disagree with.

        You might consider acknowledging that reality yourself.

    • jeburke

      You’re right. It was snarky.

      • Thirdsyphon

        It kinda was, wasn’t it? Sorry.

        • Corlyss

          “Not to be snarky, but if the author’s real objection to this production is the “psychological rape” involved in making public hay out of the suffering of private individuals, then isn’t this article itself a contribution to the problem?”

          I like a fight as much as the next gal, and I try never to interfere with an apology because they are so rare in this medium, but I don’t see what is snarky about your opening comment. My lapse, to be sure, but I think you struck right at the heart of the problem: Mead’s apparent sympathy with the family for the violation of its privacy, which is overwhelmed by his sniffy UC capitulation to his class’ utter lack of moral sensibilities: “From my perspective, I am less than fully persuaded by their first charge; the opera may portray the murderers in a more sympathetic light than many might prefer, but is neither an endorsement of nor an apology for the murder. Terrorists, however reprehensible their actions, are human beings, and it is not beyond the province of art to seek to examine and understand, so far as is possible, their motives.” One would expect to hear a hand-wringing plea for compassion to the vermin at Nuremberg, who IMO should never have been tried but should have been stood up against a wall and shot upon capture, like Churchill wanted.

          • Thirdsyphon

            You make some good points, but you might be conflating two separate (but interrelated) issues. The moral calculus involved in determining how a society should treat its real life criminals and evildoers is separate and distinct from the question of how it’s supposed to deal with them in art.

          • ahad_ha_amoratsim

            What was snarky was the assumption that we yahoos protesting the opera wouldn’t know an opera if it bit us in the Mrs. Claypool.

    • Corlyss

      “how many of the people who are passionately involved in the debate over The Death of Klinghoffer can name any other current production at the Met. . . or any other opera, period.”

      I usually wait till the radio broadcasts start to pay attention to the offerings. But I am curious, just as an exercise in argumentation, what does anyone’s familiarity with the rest of the schedule have to do with the price of beans?

      • Thirdsyphon

        My point was that, but for the media outcry over this production, it’s highly unlikely that the evils of excessive public attention would have been visited on the Klinghoffer family as a result of this opera, given the black pool of cultural oblivion that has embraced every other recent production at the Met, and, indeed, most recent opera productions in general.

        Which is to say, if the real crime here was making the Klinghoffers famous, that’s hardly the fault of the Met. . . they have the motive, to be sure, but they lack the means by themselves to keep even the fact that they exist in the public spotlight, let alone the details of what they’re up to.

    • Anthony

      Thirdsyphon, I agree “ordinarily choice of production…holds….” Similarly, I find fascinating the moralism from afar – perhaps the convenient and psychologically affirming outrage at Met’s production assuages pangs of legitimate indifference routinely displayed. To my mind opposing anti-Semitism, as opposing Sexism, Ageism, Racism, you name it, requires actionable behavior routinely and then evils of which you infer need not be made “hay” of generally at Opera’s (Met) expense – but Met is easy target.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Not being from NY, I have no idea what else is at the Met. I’m pretty sure Aida is an opera, and that so are Il Trovatore, Don Giovanni, Tosca, Fidelio, Die Fledermaus, the Wagner works cited by Prof. Meade, Tanhauser, the Master Singers, Cavaleria (one l or two? sorry) Rusticana, Girl of the Golden West, Lucia di Lamermoor, and Mme. Butterfly. Critics differ, I am told, about Porgy and Bess, one of the few on this list that I can recognize or hum anything from.

    • Eliyahu100

      After reading Phyllis Chesler’s excellent analysis of the Judeophobia inherent in this work, I can say that I detest it. But I do like opera, especially Carmen of course. I never saw an opera at the Met in NY but I have seen operas at the Teatro dell’Opera and at another venue in Rome and at two venues in Paris, the Opera de la Bastille and the Opera Garnier. So I am not a “philistine” and moreover I do not believe that there is now or ever was a distinct “Palestinian” people. Such a people never existed in history and indeed the PLO does not believe in a “Palestinian people.” Just read the PLO charter which is a pan-Arabist document. The fraudulent notion of a “Palestinian people” is one of the big lies of John Adams’ work.

  • Herb Glatter

    Obviously all that mattered was Klinghoffer was a Jew, the fact that he served his country in the Army during the Second World War was inconsequential

  • Corlyss

    “a morally questionable production,”

    We had a big fight about this on my old site devoted to classical music. There were a small number of liberal Jews, mostly in NYC, who patrolled the site for anything they considered remotely anti-Semitic and raised holy He*ll until we either suspended or banned the offender. Yet, when this opera was remounted, they rushed to defend the right of the company, the librettist, and the composer to be heard. It was a mystery to me. It started a huge brawl about moral responsibility and moral cowardice.

    “as the composer and librettist turned a family’s private grief into a public spectacle—against their will.”

    Well, that’s a pretty tepid denunciation of the enterprise, Prof. It’s a moral outrage because it violated the family’s privacy rights? Really? Maybe you need to check your own moral compass; it seems to be a bit out of whack. It’s a moral outrage because it glorifies the soulless Elites’ self-perception as open-minded, tolerant, representatives of the Enlightenment, untroubled by such old fashioned religious notions as good and evil, able to view with sympathy for the perp even the most vile acts, and tiresomely pro-Palestinian. The opera is nothing but a long propaganda rant set to music. Goebbels would be proud of them.

    Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil. – Thomas Mann

    • CailinM

      **The opera is nothing but a long propaganda rant set to music. Goebbels would be proud of them.**

      This is chilling.

      Hitler was a conduit of the anti-Semitism rampant throughout Europe, and he exported his particular brand to the middle east. Generations of young people have been so conditioned since then.

      It is a short leap from today’s terrorists, who care nothing for human beings, from the pro-Palestinian movement, and the anti-Israeli sentiment even in this country, to another Holocaust, in whatever form.

      No amount of persuasion otherwise can trump the feeling in my gut. This might not happen in my lifetime, but my gut is usually right.

      History repeats itself. I daresay most people are ill-informed or indifferent to it.

  • Noga Contentious

    “the opera may portray the murderers in a more sympathetic light than many might prefer,”
    “when it comes to Kissinger, Adams and Goodman turn him into a clownish villain.”

    In an interview for the Guardian*, Goodman says:

    “This, she argues, was her mistake: to depict terrorists as human beings and their victims as flawed. In one particularly caustic attack in the New York Times in 2001, Richard Taruskin denounced the opera for “romanticising terrorists”. Taruskin noted that Adams had said the opera owed its structure to Bach’s Passions.But in Bach’s Passions, argued Taruskin, every time Jesus is heard, an aureole of violins and violas gives Christ the musical equivalent of
    a halo. Klinghoffer has no such halo, while the Palestinian choruses are accompanied by the most beautiful music in the opera.

    What upset Taruskin was giving beautiful music to terrorists,” snaps Goodman. “They have to sing ugly music”

    So these two librettos sprang from the same mind and the flaws you have noted (in the quotes I provided) are also not unconnected. The same mind that decided to clownize Kissinger, a Jew with a German name, lionized Palestinian terrorists who killed a Jew with a German name.

    This cannot be a coincidence.


    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      The librettist Goodman was born Jewish and converted to Anglicanism, and seldom has anything good to say about the people that she abandoned.

      • Klezmer

        Well, I guess you could say that our loss is their loss.

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          I love it! As someone said in another context, it raises the average IQ on both sides of the aisle.

  • Noga Contentious
    • Corlyss

      Wiki says she’s an Anglican priest. I guess that was supposed to be funny.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Like many, she loves the idea of dead Jews, but has little use for live ones.

  • ahad_ha_amoratsim

    Is Kissinger the only Jewish character in Nixon in China? Is it coincedence that he is the only character in that opera that Adams chose to dehumanize, and that Adams also chose to dehumanize not only Leon Klinghoffer HYD (may G*d avenge his blood), but the other Jewish characters in the Death (artists dare not call it murder) of Klinghoffer?

  • CailinM

    I wonder if Mead would have written an equivalent essay over a book or movie.

    Any expression of anti-Semitism is chiling, Hitler was a conduit of the rampant sentiment in Europe. He exported it to the middle east. I cannot help but see any sympathy for terrorism or the Palestine movement as setting the stage for another Holocaust.

    No amount of persuasion otherwise would trump the feeling in my gut. My gut usually turns out to be right to some degree, maybe not in my lifetime.

  • wigwag

    I was at the demonstration this past Monday evening. It was mostly a depressing affair. At most 700 or 800 people attended which is a tiny number in a city where the publicity about this opera has been ubiquitous The average age of the demonstrators was well-into the social security years; there was nary a young person to be found. Few social protest movements thrive when their key source of support is the geriatric set; all in all, the attendance was highly disappointing, The speakers at the rally were as encumbered as the demonstrators themselves. I suppose that Rudy Giuliani is still marginally relevant but the rest of the headliners were mostly over-the-hill gasbags like former New York Governor Patterson and the Queens Borough President. An “A” list group of orators it was not.

    It brings me no pleasure to say any of this because I thought that the cause was important enough to be worth my time in showing up on a chilly autumn evening. I think that the fact that the major Jewish organizations gave the demonstrators the back of their hands was an unfortunate mistake.

    Whether the opera itself is antisemitic is an open question; its disappointing that the “American Interest’s” resident expert on “Jewcentricity” hasn’t weighed in with a response. But whether the opera itself is antisemitic, there is little question that the principals responsible for giving life to the opera are, at the very least, bigoted. That is, unless you don’t think it is bigoted to hold Jews to a standard that you refuse to hold any other group to. That’s precisely what Peter Gelb did. Its also what John Adams (the composer), Alice Goodman (the librettist), Peter Sellars (the enfant terrible who inspired the creation of the opera) and Mark Morris (the choreographer) did. They obviously believe that creating a work of opera nuanced enough to present the point of view of the murderers is fine as long as the victims of those murderers are Jewish.

    Is there any chance that Peter Gelb would have permitted the MET to stage an opera about the the aftermath of the Civil War which presented members of the Ku Klux Klan as anything other than vile? Would Adams, Goodman, Sellars and Morris affiliate themselves with a project which presented a nuanced view of Klan members? In the numerous fictional accounts of the Spanish Civil War, how often do leftist affiliated artists present a nuanced view of Franco’s fascists? What is it about these artists that cause them to view it as a badge of honor to be “brave” enough to present the murderers of Jews as “complicated” human beings when they would revile anyone who attempted to accomplish the same feat for a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan?

    It’s quite interesting to think about the likes of Goodman, Sellars and Morris and their willingness to champion the Palestinian cause. Goodman grew up on a Reform Jewish household and is now a member of the Anglican clergy. To put it more bluntly; she’s an apostate. I wonder whether Goodman has reflected on how Arab societies (including Palestinian society) views apostates. It is a criminal offense in every single Arab country to do what Goodman has done; convert to another religion (as long as its Islam that the apostate is leaving). In many of these societies, the punishment for the crime of apostasy is death. Sellars and Morris are both proud gay Americans. I wonder if they would be equally nuanced in their presentation of an opera about an Arab society murdering a man for the crime of sodomy.

    Professor Mead points out that “The Death of Klinghoffer” is not the first John Adams opera with less than flattering portrayals of Jews. He mentions that Henry Kissinger was portrayed in an offensive and stereotyped manner in “Nixon in China.” That’s true; it is also ironic. Adams and Goodman decided to give the alarmingly antisemitic Richard Nixon a pass while they turned their vitriol on Nixon’s Secretary of State. The irony is that Kissinger never viewed himself as a supporter of Israel and he was never particularly in touch with the faith of his father. The Nixon tapes reveal that in 1973, in response to the Jackson-Vanik amendment designed to help free Soviet Jews, Kissinger said,

    “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy…And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe its a humanitarian concern.”

    In 2010, Kissinger apologized for the comment and in his most recent book “World Order,” Kissinger is far more sympathetic to Israel than he has ever been. Perhaps the reason is that he has learned the hard way that if you are born a Jew, it doesn’t matter whether you repudiate your people, your heritage of your national aspirations, the world is full of bigots who can’t get beyond the fact that you are Jewish.

    What Professor Mead neglected to mention is that John Adam’s third opera, “Doctor Atomic” is also arguably antisemitic. At least the librettists of his other two operas, Alice Goodman herself, says it is. Goodman refused to write the libretto for Doctor Atomic because she believed that the presentation of Edward Teller cast him in the fashion of a stereotypic Jew. Here’s what she said in 2005,

    “I found that the structure that John and Peter [Sellars] had got together with me was really anti-Semitic…with Oppenheimer as the good blue-eyed Jew and Edward Teller, who clashed with Oppenheimer and later helped invent the hydrogen bomb as the bad limping one with the greasy hair and a host of virtuous native Americans pitted agains the refugee physicists out in the New Mexico desert.

    So there you have it; Alice Goodman thinks that Adams and Sellars are anti-Semites. Who knew?

    Professor Mead also leaves out the fact that the opera as it is presented today redacts a scene that was originally included that is highly offensive to Jews and presents ordinary Jews in a scandalous light. The scene was removed because with it included, few opera houses were willing to perform the opera. Not surprisingly, Peter Sellers objected strenuously to the removal of the scene.

    Perhaps so few American Jews turned up at the demonstration because they find it convenient to forget that they are Jewish. The idea that an opera that presents the murder of an elderly Jewish man in a “nuanced” way can’t really be about them. Henry Kissinger may have thought the same thing; he probably believed that he could just walk away from the fact of his own Judaism and no one would be any the wiser. What Kissinger discovered is that you can run but you can’t hide. Anti-Semites just don’t care whether or not you hate yourself; they are happy to hate you one way or the other.

    I hope that the American Jewish community doesn’t learn the same lesson at its peril. The European Jewish community is being reeducated about what it means to be Jewish as we speak.

    • Eliyahu100

      I saw in photos that there were some young people at the demo. Anyhow, one of the problems in getting young people out for such a demo that they are much less interested in and respectful of opera generally than earlier generations and also that this generation seems much less interested in demonstrating than the 1960s generation, for instance.

      • wigwag

        There were very few young people. If I had to guess, I would put the total at fewer than 100 demonstrators younger than 30. Bill Kristol was there and I chatted with him for a while; mostly about what an awesome intellect I think his mother possesses. I hope he appreciated my comment; he seemed to. I’ve read that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was in the audience with Professor Mead. It’s just another example of a Jew who doesn’t get it. Anyway, at the demonstration the alter kockers outnumbered the young people by about ten to one.

      • Will

        And this is protesting an opera. My generation isn’t into protesting in general. That we would protest an opera when a tiny minority of my generation watches opera is absurd.

    • Will

      Is the lack of young protesters a statement about the opera or a statement about how people too young to collect Social Security generally don’t watch opera?

      • wigwag

        You could be right, Will. Perhaps the fact that opera is not a hugely popular art form with young people drove down attendance amongst this demographic. If that’s true, it’s unfortunate for two reasons; (1) the demonstration was about the artistic celebration of the murder of an elderly Jew; it was the bigotry not the artistic form that was relevant. (2) Opera is magnificent; I didn’t discover it until I was in my mid 30s. I regret coming to it so late. Younger people would be smart to give opera a try; if they do they might love it.

        • Will

          Point 1 definitely doesn’t help get people into point 2. Opera’s reputation as being a fat lady singing in a language you don’t understand is already an uphill fight. You can get beyond that once you’re into opera but modern opera when it tries something new in English that could be a gateway for young people the way Disney musicals are for Broadway it ends up with junk like this. Opera was popular in the past because it was entertaining for a broad spectrum of people. Sadly it seems the ones written now are monuments to “screw the audience” type artist self-indulgence.

  • concernedboutamerica

    It is almost as though a purported takeover attempt of the United States were taking place right under our nose!! A truly modern Orwell/Dostoyevsky revival!!

  • Josephbleau

    “Spring time, for dead Jews…;; and Palestine!, We will Be Happy and Throw Jews into the Sea.” I will never but a ticket to a seat that was bought by an ass who wanted to see this thing.

  • Enfant Terrible

    I agree that the grief of Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer is real and *must* be acknowledged. At the same time, it must be said that Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer are the heroes of The Death of Klinghoffer. Thanks to John Adams and Amy Goodman, we will never forget them.
    That being said, let’s address the analogy. Mickey and Minnie Mouse are not famous human beings. They are works of art, property of their creator, Walt Disney. For better and for worse, the rights to their images still belong to the Disney mega-corporate-entity-thing. On the other hand, Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer are human beings who became public figures due to their unfortunate encounter with PLO terrorists. They are not the property of their daughters. The author appears to be claiming a propriety right on one’s parents as if they were cartoon characters. In my opinion, such a claim is absurd.
    By the way, The Death of Klinghoffer does not promote antisemitism or terrorism. One may dislike the opera for other reasons, but there is no basis in fact or reason for such a belief.

  • Will

    I wonder if this opera is actually a Springtime for Hitler style scam?

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