Anti-Israel Propaganda Creeps Into World of Grand Opera

Recent manifestations of the global spread of anti-Israel propaganda in the world of grand opera include an unjustifiably sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian murderers (John Adams’ recent opera, The Death of Klinghoffer); an opera (Hannah Conway‘s When I Am Old) inspired by the mythology of Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist who lost her life in 2003 trying to block Israeli bulldozers clearing an area used by terrorists and which depicts Israeli soldiers as violent, Nazi-like characters; a venerable classic’s plot based on Bible passages re-worked to reverse the roles of the ancient Israelites and their antagonists as an allusion to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Camille Saint-Saen’s 19th century masterpiece Samson & Dalila); and a politicized version of an opera based on a Bible theme in which the re-working inserts anti-Israel messages (Gioachino Rossini’s 19th century Moses and Pharaoh).

Scene from The Death of Klinghoffer, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, © Ken Howard 2011
The Death of Klinghoffer – 2011 Production in Saint Louis

Composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer (the librettist is Alice Goodman) characterizes the Arab-Israel conflict through use of a murder that took place in 1985 following the Palestinian hijacking of a cruise ship off the coast of Egypt. A disabled passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew on holiday with his wife Marylyn, had been shot and thrown overboard in his wheelchair by members of Muhammad Zaidan’s (aka “Abu Abbas”) Palestine Liberation Front, a faction of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.
An indicator of the mindset of Adams/Goodman is the wording selected for the opera’s title – much more accurate (but less benign toward the Palestinian hijackers) would have been The Murder of Klinghoffer or The Killing of Klinghoffer. The opera contains anti-Israel messages – for example, the baseless accusation that Israeli solders commit decapitations of Palestinian Arabs (Mamoud, one of the terrorists, tells the captain of the brutality his family has faced, his mother driven away during a raid, his brother decapitated).

A 1991 New York Times article reported on the antipathy toward Adams/Goodman of Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer:

“We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the cold blooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic,”  the Klinghoffers said in a statement issued by their personal representative, Letty Simon.While we understand artistic license, when it so clearly favors one point of view it is biased. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”

When it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991, Newsday’s Tim Page described the opera as “pompous, turgid, derivative and hopelessly confused,” and even more strongly objected to Goodman’s libretto, which he felt characterized the terrorists as ” real men – Rousseau’s noble savages made flesh – as opposed to the opera’s nattering, ineffectual Jewish characters. . . .”

The September 2011 issue of Opera News  magazine (published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild) reviews (mostly favorably) the 2011 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (Missouri) production (video clip) of Klinghoffer, including a discussion of the opera’s plot and elements of the Saint Louis production.

Typical of Adams’ operas, the music is mostly repetitious, monotonous and not particularly melodic. So what is their attraction? Adams’ operas, as with most modern (or “avant-garde”) examples, are enthusiastically received by those who mainly value story line (or plot) and messages (especially if they agree with them) more than the beauty of the music and singers’ performances. The repetitive and monotonous music tends to focus attention on the opera’s plot and words (“libretto”) whereas traditional operas mainly use plot and libretto as vehicles to present great music and great singing performances.

Rachel Corrie Opera – 2011 Production in Glyndebourne, England

The Web site of Glyndebourne Youth Opera states: “When I Am Old by Hannah Conway with libretto by Hazel Gould is a new work inspired by the writings of Rachel Corrie, a young American peace activist killed in Gaza in 2003. The piece was researched and developed with the young participants of the Glyndebourne Youth Opera 3. It is presented with the blessings of the Corrie family. Middle East consultant, Amy Doust.”
In fact, the opera is basically a propaganda piece inspired by the accidental death of anti-Israel activist Corrie while impeding the Israel Defense Forces. An earlier CAMERA report focused on Corrie’s activities in conjunction with an extreme  anti-Israel group, International Solidarity Movement (ISM):

On the day she died, Corrie and other ISM  recruits repeatedly obstructed Israeli military bulldozers working along the Gaza-Egyptian border. In this area the Israel Defense Forces frequently uncover tunnels used for weapons smuggling. Bulldozers raze buildings that hide the entrances or serve as cover for snipers, and detonate explosives planted by Palestinian terrorists.
But on March 16, 2003 ISM interference in a closed military area caused the IDF repeatedly to halt its heavy machinery. According to an IDF investigation and American news reports, Corrie and others continued to hinder the work when it resumed.

The Jewish Chronicle Online (United Kingdom) in a Sept ember 2011 article says of this opera:

The Glyndebourne festival has defended its production of a children’s opera based on the writings of pro-Palestinian American activist Rachel Corrie, killed in Gaza in 2003… Ms Corrie, a 23-year-old member of the International Solidarity Movement, was killed in March 2003 as she attempted to block IDF bulldozers clearing an area used by terrorists to dig tunnels under the border with Egypt.
In When I Am Old, children acting as IDF soldiers shout through megaphones and jostle audience members. They then, according to the libretto, “shoot their guns into the air for fun,” after forcing Palestinian characters out of their homes. One soldier sings: “There is no such thing as a civilian in a war zone.” In a later scene an affluent couple are seen discussing their plans for the day before catching a bus which then blows up, the target of an apparent suicide bombing.
Glyndebourne fan Ian Harris attended the opera and said: “I just could not believe what I was seeing. It was an outrageous, totally one-sided piece of anti-Israel propaganda, which Glyndebourne, with its many Jewish patrons and supporters, should never have allowed. It portrayed Israeli soldiers as callous child-murderers. The performance was disgusting, not least because of the effect of this propaganda on its young participants.” Mr Harris has complained to Gus Christie, executive chairman of Glyndebourne.

Samson & Dalila –  2011 Video of 2009 Production in Antwerp, Belgium

The August 2011 issue of Opera News magazine contains a problematic article evaluating a 2011 video recording (DVD) of a 2009 production of Saint-Saens’ Samson & Delila: “An Israeli and a Palestinian, Omri Nitzan and Amir Nizar Zuabi, here co-direct Samson et Dalila as an indictment of occupation and terror. At the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp in 2009, Nitzan and Zuabi portray the Hebrews as modern-day Palestinians, the Philistines as modern-day Israelis.”
But with artistic license run amok, Nitzan/Zuabi turn reality upside down into propagandistic falsification in which singers appear (video clip from the production) in a modern setting, in modern clothing, toting realistic-looking modern weapons – rifles, machine guns, handguns – even an explosives vest (Samson in the final scene). Despite the mostly favorable Opera News magazine review of this version of the opera, anyone seeking a video of the opera would do well to avoid this nasty piece of propaganda in favor of a video that is reasonably faithful to the composer’s intentions. Such videos of Samson & Dalila, containing Saint-Saens’ gorgeous music in an authentic setting, are readily available.
Saint-Saens based his story line on the Bible’s book of Judges chapter 16 which depicts the seduction of Samson, the hero and leader of Israel, who allowed himself to be compromised and put at a disadvantage by the temptress, Dalila (Delilah), in a plot contrived by the rulers of the Philistines. Chapter 16, verse 21: “Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison…” (New International Version almost identical to the Jewish Publication Society version). The final scene of the opera depicts the next to last verse (30) of chapter 16 in which Samson is brought to the temple of the Philistines where the rulers and many others had assembled to offer a great sacrifice to the god, Dagon. Samson, recovering his great physical strength, turns the tables on his captors by pushing on and collapsing the pillars of the temple (in the Nitzan/Zuabi version it’s an explosives vest that does it) causing the temple to come crashing down, killing all including Samson.

The ancient Philistines, dominated by diabolical, aggressive leaders, warred for many years with the Israelites from their 12th century BCE home territory in the Gaza Strip (sound familiar?). The Philistines, long gone from world history, were not Arabs, they were most closely related to the Greeks originating from Asia Minor and other Greek areas. They arrived by sea to the coastal area of Gaza adjacent to Israel. They had no physical connection whatsoever with the Arab world. Yet ironically, there does seem to be a connection – a spiritual one of hate and violence against the children of Israel – shared by the ancient Philistines of Gaza and the current residents of Gaza, Hamas-dominated Arabs.

Jonathan Tobin writing in Commentary magazine on the Nizar/Zuabi Antwerp version (excerpts):

A hallmark of the ongoing campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel is to claim that the Jews aren’t really the Jews. Thus, to treat Israel’s right of self-defense against terrorists and states that seek to destroy it as inherently immoral — a standard no one would seek to impose on any other country — you have to impose a new identity on the Jews.

The most popular way of doing this is to claim that the Jews have become Nazis. Such claims have become popular now in Europe as well as throughout the Muslim world. Such a juxtaposition is both offensive — not so very long ago the Nazis murdered approximately one out of every three Jews alive — and an absolute falsehood since Israel doesn’t seek to exterminate the Palestinians as the Nazis did the Jews, but merely to stop them from committing mayhem.

In a new production of Camille Saint-Saens’s biblical set piece “Samson et Dalila” at the Flanders Opera in Antwerp, Belgium, the Philistines oppressing the Hebrews were portrayed as Israelis and the Hebrews as the Palestinians.

An Israeli and a Palestinian two-man artistic team created this production. The presence of the Israeli, Omri Nitzan, is meant to make it all kosher since we are supposed to think that if one of those smearing the Jews is a Jew himself, it is somehow okay.

Moreover, [Michael] Kimmelman [commenting on the Antwerp production in a New York Times arts section May 2009 article] insists: “Rage is a perfectly sane response to the Israeli occupation. And all art is political in the end.” One can rebut that the “occupation” was a perfectly sane response to several invasions [and attempted invasions], the purpose of which was to eradicate the State of Israel and to slaughter its inhabitants. We could also point out that had the Palestinian [Arab]s been even marginally interested in sharing the country and living in peace with the Jews, they might have accepted any [one of a] number of peace offers over the course of the past two decades, if not the last half-century. Even more to the point, Gaza, the setting of the final scene of the opera, is currently occupied by [the anti-Zionist, antisemitic, anti-Western Islamic extremists of] Hamas, not Israel.

It’s a perverse mindset that would twist Bible history in a way that reverses the intended meaning in order to promote a political agenda. Egregiously, Nitzan/Zuabi have encouraged the recurrent racism of antisemitism by portraying as the heroes – today’s Palestinians, and as the villains – today’s Israelis. But in the real world of today’s Middle East there is continuous incitement of Palestinians to violence and hate against Israelis. This indoctrination emanates from Palestinian media, mosques, schools and Websites. No such indoctrination exists on the Israeli side against Palestinians.

Has this indoctrination succeeded? Consider the societal mindset of the Palestinians as reported by the Jerusalem Post documenting a recent opinion survey carried out in Gaza and the West Bank by the respected American pollster Stanley Greenberg who found that 73 percent agree with the Hamas Charter’s urging Muslims to kill Jews wherever they can find them, 53 percent favored teaching songs about hating Jews to school children, and 66 percent see the two-state solution as an interim stage en route to the ultimate goal of a single Palestinian state in all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

This Palestinian Arab mindset reminds one of the depiction of Saint-Saens’ actual villains in his opera, the ancient Philistines, in the Bible. Ezekiel 25:15: “… in their ancient hatred, [the Philistines] acted vengefully, and with utter scorn sought revenge and destruction [upon the Israelites].” (Jewish Publication Society version of the Bible and Christian versions of Bible essentially identical here).

Moses and Pharoah – 2009 Production in Salzburg, Austria

Moses and Pharaoh (also known as Moses in Egypt), was composed by Gioachino Rossini, the19th century Italian opera master, in 1827 and first performed in that year. The opera’s plot  takes a few liberties with the Biblical account but is certainly not anti-Jewish. An anti-Israel, anti-Jewish re-working of the opera was staged in August 2009 at the prestigious Salzburg (Austria) Opera Festival by the Festival’s director, Jurgen Flimm. The November 2009 issue of Opera News magazine described the anti-Israel message of  Flimm’s production:

In interviews, Flimm had announced that the biblical story couldn’t be told today without mentioning the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs. So instead of watching dancers during the ballet music, we had to read quotations from the Bible on the closed curtain, demonstrating the vindictiveness of the Hebrew god. When the “ballet” was over and the curtain rose again, the stage was covered with dead children — probably an allusion to the Gaza war. To balance the message, the Israelites arrived for the finale with suitcases filled with ashes. No Red Sea had to be crossed; they simply disappeared through a back door.

What’s Next?

We are reminded that much of art, as well as life, is subject to the seemingly everlasting hatred of Jews and Israel. What new opera is yet to be created as a testimony to the hatred? What opera classic is the next to be radically re-worked to express this hatred? Might it be Giuseppe Verdi’s glorious opera Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), a tribute to the ancient Israelites by the universally beloved composer who is in the pantheon of the greatest of opera composers?
When Verdi died at the age of 87 in Milan, Italy on January 17, 1901, two hundred thousand people came to pay homage. The composer had instructed that no music be played at his funeral; however, before the procession left the cemetery, the famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini, conducted a mass choir which sang Verdi’s beloved “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco (Chorus of the Israelite captives in sad remembrance, yearning to return from Babylon to Israel and Jerusalem) (video clip)  which soon spread throughout the crowd.
One can easily imagine a Jurgen Flimm or a Nitzan/Zuabi staging a production of Nabucco in which the Israelite choruses are replaced by Palestinian Arab choruses singing about yearning to return from  internment camps to “Palestine,” if not ethnically cleansed of Jews, then its Jewish residents subjugated as of old as “dhimmis” under Islamic rule from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan.

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