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When director Peter Sellars and composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer had its initial runs in Brussels and New York in 1991, it caused a sensation and a furor. The subject matter, still fresh in the public consciousness, was the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by the Palestinian Liberation Front, and the ruthless murder of 69-year-old Jewish —and wheelchair-bound — passenger Leon Klinghoffer.
Considering, for instance, that the aftermath of the public uproar left talented librettist Alice Goodman virtually unable to work, the piece languished for two decades, with major opera houses ostensibly fearing the possible backlash from staging it. But a successful run at London’s English National Opera in 2012 eventually brought the production to New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera House, where it opened this past Monday.
Read more Opera Review: The Death of Klinghoffer
As very much expected, hundreds of protesters clustered around Lincoln Center, loudly decrying The Death of Klinghoffer as anti-Semitic and accusing its producers of glorifying terrorism. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former governor George Pataki and Klinghoffer’s two surviving daughters all joined in the dissent. Perhaps only stoking the tension, the opera received rave reviews from major media outlets.
Following the opening, Kilnghoffer’s English director Tom Morris sat down with THR to discuss the controversy and his hopes for the production.
What was the initial impetus for restaging The Death of Klinghoffer in 2012?
I was invited by John Berry of the English National Opera. It coincided with a growing sense of the gravity of this particular opera, and made the opportunity of a revival interesting. I thought it was an extraordinary piece, one of great musical power and sometimes brilliant dramatic insight — and it was obviously connected to a global political issue which very clearly hadn’t gone away in the years since it was written.
So you didn’t think of this as just a piece of history? You were aware of its current relevance?
Obviously we had no idea when we started planning this production that there was going to be a bitter conflict this year in Gaza. That fact that there was, [reminds us] of the underlying problems that inform and motivate the crime in The Death of Klinghoffer.
It does seem that a lot of the protests here are about the very idea of staging an opera about terrorism, as if to say a war movie automatically glorifies war.
The demonstrations aren’t anything to do with the opera, for the very reasons you describe. If you’re trying to advance an argument that says that any work of dramatic art which contains an unpleasant act, or the attitudes that motivate it, then you’d have to censor every war movie, every tragedy. 12 Years a Slave would be banned on the basis that it condones slavery … which is just not a sustainable position. And none of the people who are demonstrating, even at their most angry and blinkered, would really advance that position.
Art is often found guilty without a proper trial.
In the second half, the shooting of Leon Klinghoffer is dramatized, and the extraordinary grief and anger of his wife when she finds out he’s died is brilliantly portrayed by Michaela Martens. But none of them are interested in that, in what’s actually on stage. They’re just making the argument they want to make. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that they’re actually demonstrating about what’s going on onstage.
Could you imagine that anyone in the audience would find the Palestinian terrorist characters anything less than despicable in their actions?
One of the complaints has been about the “humanizing” of the terrorists. I would draw the attention of those people to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which very vividly dramatizes the descent of a brilliant soldier into murderous moral degeneracy. The brilliance of that play is in Shakespeare’s articulation of the humanity of the man who destroys himself through this murderous act. And I don’t think anyone sensible thinks that Macbeth should be banned. And whether we like it or not, the people who hijacked the ship and killed Kilnghoffer were human.
Well, Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil was partly about how seemingly ordinary citizens just got in line behind Hitler.
And how frightening it is that your neighbor could suddenly become that person.
If you look at [psychologist Stanley] Milgram’s classic experiments, which were inspired by the crimes of the Holocaust, he found that ordinary people could end up doing terrible things. And one of the values of art is that it allows us to investigate really difficult things in our world — not only politics, but also crime.
Marilyn Klinghoffer is given the final dramatic aria. Do you think that bestows a sort of heroism on her in the context of the opera?
Drama is about conflict. Neither Marilyn nor Leon do anything to deserve what happens to them. The only violence in the opera is the violence of the hijackers toward the hostages. To that extent, therefore, Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer are the victims of this drama. My view is that in the music and the libretto, there is a great dignity in both of those characterizations. And it’s not an accident that Marilyn is given the last word with her aria at the end — which is an extraordinary expression of grief and recrimination toward the captain, who it turns out has lied to the authorities in order to release the deadlock.
What do you hope, as an artist, that people unfamiliar with the events will take from seeing this production?
One thing that’s happening already is that people are coming to the show because they heard it’s interesting, rather than just because it’s an opera. When you have an opera that is able to engage publicly in that way, it’s a good thing. The quality of conversation that can happen once people have seen the production is obviously far superior to the quality of conversation that is happening amid the demonstrations right now. But the opera is complex — it’s not an easy-to-interpret drama. And some people will think one thing about it, and others another. It’s about to spark extraordinary conversation. But this work of art does not try to persuade an audience of any point of view; it invites an audience to think. Its value will be in the diversity of response.
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