An Unedifying Night at the Opera

The working world spares no sympathy for cruise passengers. When a plane falls out of the sky or a train is derailed we clutch ourselves and murmur, there but for the grace of. On hearing that a cruise liner has been beached, bombed or beset by mass vomiting, what we feel, if anything, is a flush of shame at our lack of fellow-feeling for those who pay to sail in luxury between the active life and a golden sunset.

I first observed this bemused reaction almost 30 years ago on the faces of clerks in a Rome hotel who were processing survivors of the Achille Lauro terror attack. None knew what to say to the shocked guests, or how to respond in a human way. A ship had been hijacked by four Palestinians while sailing off the Egyptian coast in October 1985. After being refused entry to a Syrian port, the terrorists shot an American pensioner, Leon Klinghoffer, and hurled him overboard in his wheelchair.

By the time I ran into the passengers, the story was over bar the diplomatic shouting. In ten days, it would have been erased from common memory, eclipsed by ghastlier events, consigned to the long tail of Holy Land atrocities that extends from the Hebron massacre of 1929 to this morning’s news. Cruise ships do not figure among the great causes. The Achille Lauro would have died, had it not become an opera.

That said, the recent uproar at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, over John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer amounted on the whole to an uninspiring recapitulation of fixed prejudices. One side shouted for free speech and modern art, the other in outrage at anti-Semitic expressions and the abuse of an innocent victim’s memory.

Reprising the static objections should not take more than two paragraphs. Racial prejudice is found in the opera in a hijacker’s tirade at his helpless prisoner:

. . . Wherever poor men
Are gathered they can
Find Jews getting fat.
You know how to cheat
The simple, exploit
the virgin, pollute
Where you have exploited . . .

Anti-Semitism? The makers of the opera say such lines express the reality of Arab Jew-hatred and reflect badly on the terrorists. The librettist, Alice Goodman, born American Jewish, is now an Anglican vicar, an innocuous vocation.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a lobby group, advised the Met’s manager Peter Gelb that restaging the opera in 2014 would fuel global tides of anti-Semitism. Gelb, declaring pride in his Jewishness (while consuming a New York Times bacon lunch), agreed to cancel cinema screenings of the opera, accepting in effect that its content was inflammatory but confining its influence to the few thousand civilised Manhattanites who could afford tickets to the Met. His compromise, a political fudge, left no one satisfied.

The opera went ahead in the teeth (or dentures) of an ineffectual demonstration, undermining the ADL’s assertion that it might incite something stronger. Not, in fact, since Auber’s La Muette de Portici fomented Belgian revolution in 1830 and Verdi’s Nabucco defined Italian nationalism in 1842 has an opera provoked political violence. Opera is not that kind of art. If its impact was exhortative, our ancestors would have rushed out and raped their sisters after seeing Wagner’s Ring.

What, then, is the purpose of opera in 2014? To make us think, to make us feel (not necessarily in that order). Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Met hoo-hah was its want of new thinking or true feeling. The fault lay in the work and its history.

The Death of Klinghoffer
belongs to a different time. Its team — Goodman, Adams and the hyperactive director, Peter Sellars — came together in 1985 for Nixon in China, an opera that broke both the American taboo of respect for the office of President and the modern convention that opera must be “difficult”. Adams’s post-minimalist score was easy on the ear, while Goodman’s text added credible humanity to aloof characters.

Premiered in Houston in 1987, Nixon in China reached the Edinburgh Festival the following year and, after TV and other productions, is regarded as a minor revival miracle for an embattled art form.

Praised for inventing a sub-genre of news opera, Sellars plucked The Death of Klinghoffer from a headline. Its inception was unhappy. The team claimed they had consulted the victim’s family. Leon Klinghoffer’s two daughters, in a note in the 2014 Met program, said they first saw the text at a Brooklyn production, months after its Brussels world premiere. “We were devastated by what we saw: the exploitation of the murder of our father as a vehicle for political commentary,” they wrote.

The New York critic Manuela Hoelterhoff, who saw the opera in Brussels, found that it “turns the sport-killing of a frail old Jew in a wheelchair into a cool meditation on meaning and myth, life and death”. The operative word here is “cool”. What Manuela deplored was the opera’s emotional neutrality, allied to its eagerness to be politically, leftishly progressive. She declared the printed foreword by Peter Sellars to be “repulsively amoral and culturally pretentious”.

Much turgid ink has flowed since those telling words. The world has moved on, and down. The Death of Klinghoffer cannot be seen today without reference to ascending levels of Middle East atrocity. Beside mass bombings and aid-worker beheadings, the shooting of a cruise hostage can seem, by comparison, almost chivalric.

Alice Goodman raises other qualms. In a recent interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, the vicar says she withdrew from a further Adams and Sellars opera, Doctor Atomic, because Adams and Sellars saw the story as a pact between a brilliant Jew and the science devil. “There’s no way you can tell that story with [Robert] Oppenheimer as Faust and not have it be anti-Semitic,” she said.

A whiff of bacon clings to The Death of Klinghoffer, even in the version toned down for the Met. I saw the work in a Channel 4 TV production and at English National Opera and I don’t think it’s an important or edifying opera; both Nixon and Doctor Atomic are superior works. I dislike Goodman’s pulpit language and Adams’s inability to write a duet. The greatest fault, however, is the title.

Klinghoffer’s daughters have a case: the makers of this opera had no right to take the name of an innocent victim. Doing so showed lack of respect — worse, a lack of sympathy. But then people who go on cruises can’t expect sympathy, can they? And makers of opera cannot be called to account.

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