Infamous Anti-Israel Opera Refuses to Go Away



John Adams

The Los Angeles Master Chorale, the city’s most prestigious classical music organization after the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra with which LAMC regularly performs, on March 26, 2017 commemorated composer John Adams’ 70th birthday at Walt Disney Concert Hall with selections from his works including the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of Exiled Jews” that open Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” opera.

The creation of Adams (pictured above) and librettist Alice Goodman (pictured below), the opera premiered in 1991. Additional stagings have been few in number due in part to its controversial nature. The plot of the opera is based on an actual event – the 1985 murder of a 69-year-old disabled American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, a passenger, with his wife Marilyn, celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, on the Achille Lauro Italian cruise ship. Klinghoffer, confined to a wheelchair, was shot in the head and dumped into the Mediterranean Sea by Palestinian Arab terrorists who had hijacked the ship. The opera persists due in part to homage paid by some to composer Adams, a Los Angeles luminary.



Alice Goodman

The opera’s story line can be characterized fairly as “Understandably aggrieved Palestinian Arabs wreak vengeance on Jew standing in for all his perfidious co-religionists.” This is the opera’s obscene inversion of the reality that was a cruise ship hijacking and subsequent murder of an American Jew by Arab terrorists.

The words of the opera’s opening choruses set the tone for the opera. The opera begins with the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians.” The words describe the Palestinian Arabs as righteously angry, helpless victims of the Jews who steal their land and wreak death and destruction upon them. They declare that ultimately their faith (Islamic) will help them to punish and defeat the Jews.
Chorus of Exiled Palestinians (8.5 minute video clip) excerpted:

My father’s house was razed
In nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis passed
Over our street
Israel Laid all to waste
Let the supplanter look
Upon his work. Our faith
Will take the stones he broke
And break his teeth.

On the other hand, the Chorus of Exiled Jews (8.5 minute video clip) derogates Israeli Jews, ascribing to them a sense of guilt and a dark pathology merging sexual lust with lust for the land. Excerpted:

When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left,
And, of course, no luggage. My empty hands shall
Signify this passion, which itself remembers.
O Daughter of Zion, when you lay upon my breast
I was like a soldier who lies beneath the earth
Of his homeland, resolved.
You said, “I am an old woman. I thought you were dead.
I have forgotten how often we betrayed one another.
Let us, when our lust is exhausted for the day …
Your neighbour, the one who let me in,
She was brought up on stories of our love.

Elsewhere in the opera, “Wherever poor men – Are gathered they can – Find Jews getting fat” is an example of the opera’s baleful characterizations of Jews by the Arab hijackers. Other such examples can be found in the complete libretto.
Contemptible work

“Klinghoffer” repeatedly defames Israelis and Jews as a group. But nowhere does it criticize Arabs or Muslims as a group. It potentially could incite violence against Jews.

The opera’s supporters typically restrict themselves to defending the opera’s propagandistic storyline without dealing with the music. In fact, the music is generally unremarkable except for the clever way it’s used by Adams to underscore words of the Palestinian hijackers. This was pointed out by the eminent American musicologist Richard Taruskin in a New York Times article condemning the Adams opera, “Music’s Dangers And The Case For Control” (Dec. 9, 2001). The New York Classical Review said the opera “makes a devastating impact … [although] there are stretches of mediocre and even outright bad music.”

Typically ignored by supporters is the crux of the problem – the actual words that are sung. Instead, supporters tend to resort to the notion of artistic freedom. It tends to constitute intellectual pretentiousness with anti-Israel bias and antisemitism sometimes as factors.

Pernicious indicators
Aside from the opera’s libretto, at least two indicators point to problems. First, the choice of the title, “The Death of Klinghoffer” instead of “The Murder …,” (or even “The Killing …”) signals the work’s singular moral evasion and misrepresentation. Second, Goodman, while writing the opera’s libretto, seems to have had an identity crisis. She rejected her American Jewish heritage by joining the Anglican Church (The Church of England), the leadership of which is known for its hostility toward Israel. Goodman is now an ordained Anglican priest serving in England. Whatever the reasons, whether psychological, theological, or political, she produced lyrics that rehearsed traditional antisemitic stereotypes
and married them to anti-Zionist slogans while exculpating, even dignifying Arab terrorism. Generally, the Adams/Goodman Jewish problem seems to focus on an obsession with what they imagine to be Jewish guilt. “Klinghoffer” is not the only Adams/Goodman opera that exhibits the problem. Others are “Nixon in China” (the opera’s only villain is Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State,  portrayed as cruel and cunning.) and “Dr. Atomic” (physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer is portrayed as tortured by feelings of guilt).
Notoriety at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera company

The opera had its Metropolitan Opera debut on Oct. 20, 2014. The Met performed it seven more times through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera.

However, CAMERA led the way in persuading General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, on June 17, 2014 to cancel plans to simulcast on Nov. 15, 2014 “The Death of Klinghoffer” to large-screen theaters in 70 countries around the world (including theaters in each major American metropolitan area), thereby reducing the potential audience by hundreds of thousands. This came after CAMERA inspired protests via letters and phone calls to the Met, to the media, to sponsors of the simulcast and the simulcast company. CAMERA was credited for the cancellation by the Jerusalem Post  (June 25, 2014).

A work like “Klinghoffer” could have an outsize effect beyond its audience in wrongly influencing the general public since grand opera’s devotees disproportionally tend to include molders of mass opinion – teachers, writers, journalists, correspondents and so on. A problem is that these molders tend to lean to the post-liberal left with its unrealistic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For example, Mark Swed, a leading Los Angeles music critic, praised both “Klinghoffer” and the LAMC concert in a Los Angeles Times March 28, 2017 review (Entertainment section Part E, page 3). He wrote: “The choruses from ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ proved especially effective, in part because the choral writing itself is subtly eloquent, even when violent … In the choruses of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews, [pianist] Ray’s lush tone was like applying aloe vera on the raw nerves of the two sides, who share a poetic and spiritual character they find such difficulty in recognizing in the other.”

Here, Swed eloquently but unrealistically equates the two sides of the dispute, ignoring recurring violence incited by longstanding and relentless anti-Israel and anti-Jewish invective from Palestinian media, mosques, schools and leadership. Examples – the Palestinian Authority regularly makes bounty payments to terrorists’ families; PA President Abbas said on Palestinian television on Sept. 16, 2015: “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. With the help of Allah, every martyr will be in heaven, and every wounded will get his reward” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18, 2015).

The incendiary attitude of Palestinians as a society towards their Jewish neighbors is indicated by a December 2015 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) that showed that a majority of Palestinians favor violence against Israelis. In sharp contrast, no such incitement to violence or hatred against Arabs exists in mainstream Jewish society anywhere that is analogous to that found in Palestinian society.

Adams’ musically mediocre opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” and its supporters – especially molders of public opinion – constitute a disservice to the causes of truth, peace and justice.

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