On Saturday night, a controversial work premiered at the English National Opera in London. One hundred and ninety seven members of the press packed the seats — the entire playhouse was sold out. This was surprising, since — based on the 1985 Palestine Liberation Front hijacking of the Mediterranean cruise liner Achille Lauro — the two-act piece was written in 1989 and has been staged intermittently since 1991 in the United States, Europe and New Zealand.
Almost 500 passengers and crew on the Achille Lauro had been held hostage for four days by Palestinian terrorists, ostensibly to gain the release of 50 associates held in Israeli jails. They were liberated after the captain told negotiators and the media that “all on board were safe and unharmed.” He had lied. A paralyzed, 69-year-old American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, had been shot in his wheelchair, his body dumped in the sea.
A year later, his widow — separated from him below deck — died of cancer. In 1991, the couple’s two daughters sat anonymously in a performance of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and wrote:
We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centrepiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic… Moreover, the juxtaposition of the fight of the Palestinian people with the murder of an innocent, disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling (New York Times, September 11, 1991).
The Brooklyn opening created such a protest that Los Angeles and the Glyndebourne Opera Festival canceled their contracts with the production. In the wake of the furor, the opera’s Jewish-born librettist, Alice Goodman, reportedly converted to Christianity.
Following 9/11, the Boston Opera also canceled a performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” as a member of the chorus had lost her husband when flight AA 11 crashed into the Twin Towers. In 2009, a member of the Julliard Association protested a performance at the foremost New York music school, saying: “Julliard has honored an outrageous and immoral justification of the murder of an American citizen and an aged Jew as a work of art… The Julliard School, in presenting this opera, is responsible for giving sanction to an anti-Semitic and criminal act.”
University of California musicologist Richard Taruskin has had the following to say about the opera:
If terrorism is to be defeated, world public opinion has to be turned decisively against it, no longer romanticizing terrorists as Robin Hoods and no longer idealizing their deeds as rough justice…’The Death of Klinghoffer’ is anti-American, anti-Semitic.
In response, the “Klinghoffer” composer, John Adams, claimed: “in this country, there is almost no option for the other side, no space for the Palestinian point of view.” He attacked the Los Angeles Opera administrators for canceling, claiming that they had “gotten the heebie-jeebies” (“The Witch Hunt,” The Guardian, 15 December).
Little wonder that his claim of evenhandedness in the opening “Choruses of Exiled Palestinians and Exiled Jews” rings hollow. The first sings of how “My father’s house was razed in 1948, when the Israelis passed over our street,” against a backdrop of graffiti daubed on a concrete wall, intriguingly proclaiming “Warsaw 1943, Bethlehem 2005.”
Enter the exiled Jews, all in kippot and headscarves, passively planting trees on the allegedly usurped land.
In the second act, a Palestinian woman — presented as Abraham’s slave/concubine Hagar — sings to her son, Ishmael, agonizing that he, the scion of the Arab people, was apparently born on the wrong side of the blanket. Whereupon, she morphs into a spiteful “Um Jihad,” urging her hijacker son to wreak vengeance on the conflated image of his half-brother Isaac — the first generic Jew available to kill:
Do not grow old in years like those Jews,
My heart will break if you do not walk in Paradise within two days.
After a frenzied dance, the psychotic young terrorist shoots the helpless wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer in the back, as a ritualized execution. (Perversely, the disabled are often the target of hate crimes, and especially neo-Nazi violence. Three hundred thousand handicapped were exterminated by Hitler.)
The Achille Lauro captain sums up a new banality of evil in his record:
I did get very worried when I saw Klinghoffer coming towards me in his wheelchair… His slowness in getting around the ship was becoming a source of irritation to the Palestinian.
At one point, the captain embraces the terrorist leader, for which Klinghoffer’s widow chides him: “The touch of Palestine is on your uniform.”
During the 30-minute recess, speaking with several of the educated audience, I felt the touch of Palestine on my own British thinking. Nothing appeared to them to be amiss when the singing terrorists called for segregation of “Americans,” “British” and “Jews” among the passengers.
When the curtain descended, heralding a torrent of enthusiastic applause, I was disconcerted: were they cheering for the performers or for the cause?