The debate of Klinghoffer

The debate of Klinghoffer

The last few days have seen a bit of controversy in the media about English National Opera’s new production of John Adam’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer (see the Telegraph & the Independent). A few of my twitter contacts are involved in this production and have been chiming in, and Chris Maltman who is in Penny Woolcock’s film adaptation (which I saw several years back) has also given some interesting input.

The opera, premiered in 1991, deals with the murder of a wheel-chair-bound Jewish man during the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists.

Here’s a video ENO has produced with the production’s director, Tom Morris:


Norman Lebrecht helpfully highlights the major points of contention:

(1) is it anti-semitic? (2) is it insensitive towards the victim of a terror atrocity?

While he shows in his essay for the Jewish Chronicle that the piece is not anti-semitic (see also Robert Fink’s essay), there does remain for many people the issue of how depiction relates to approval. As cast member Lucy Schaufer highlighted:


I think this is a very important distinction to make when dealing with narratives: just because something is depicted or shown, it doesn’t mean it is given support (it deserves a post of its own, but I’ll suffice to note that a failure to make this distinction is a common misstep of critics of certain biblical narratives too!).

One of the major problems some have with the piece is that they say it ‘romanticizes’ or gives too much empathy to the terrorists. Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters object to the piece, and in a statement made regarding a recent production in St Louis, they say:

We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theater can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events.  This opera, however, does no such thing.  The Death of Klinghoffer takes a heinous terrorist event and rationalizes, legitimizes, and explains it.  There is no way that this terrorist murder can or should be presented in a balanced manner.

There can be no compassion, understanding, or objectivity for terrorists, no matter who they are, where they live, or what their story is.

While I can empathise with how they must feel, and understand how difficult objectivity is in such a position, I disagree that there can be no understanding. They seem to make the wrong assumption that understanding (and even understanding the rationale) equates to legitimizing. What this piece appears to do is precisely to try to understand what motivates people to do condemnable and heinous things like this. While it may be comforting in the short-term to see things in a kind of b&w, good vs evil, us & them way, I don’t think this is a helpful position to take, or a reflection of real humanity. It is a kind of dehumanizing that the work’s librettist, Rev. Alice Goodman, takes real issue with (her recent interview with the Guardian is well worth reading).

The Documentation Centre in Nuremberg is a powerful example of this kind of objective understanding. To look simply at the outcome of the National Socialist regime it is difficult to see how such a monstrous regime could ever get into power through electoral means, but when one traces the rise of the movement it becomes clear just how they did it, little by little, and what kind of social climate was there to be exploited. In no way does this excuse or legitimize what happened, but by understanding we’re in a better position to learn how to avoid such things.

Understanding what might drive someone to do something heinous in no way legitimizes it, but it does help us to resolve such issues and get to the causes. The arts are an ideal place to explore these issues, to be challenged and think through uncomfortable questions.

We need to return, however, to Lebrecht’s second question about whether it’s insensitive. Who of us would want a family tragedy to be played out on stage? While I defend the value of the questions the piece asks, I’m very much more hesitant to conclude that they should be explored via an historical event while the immediate family are still alive. Goodman argues that the Klinghoffers

having been advisers to these [other two] docudramas, they couldn’t really say this is all a private family matter because it had become part of the public discourse.

I see the point, but remain unconvinced. This opera is not strictly a docudrama, and there is quite a difference between celebrating a person in a work, as Theofanidis’ Heart of Soldier recently did, and using an event to explore issues the way Adam’s opera does. Lisa Klinghoffer also left this comment on the Telegraph article:

The opera displays thoughts and feeling about our parents and friends they never had or expressed.  Prior to the production, I tried to tell Peter Sellars about our parents,  but he said that he did not want or need to hear them.  To us he was willing to distort the image of our parents and to show a stereotypical picture of the “fat cat” American Jew to express his political agenda.   While the suppression of Art is always wrong, it is also wrong to let lies and prejudice go unanswered.

If the opera was not intended to be a documentary, then it’s inevitable that characters would be molded in various ways. At what point, then, does a piece stop being historical? If the Leon Klinghoffer of Adam’s opera doesn’t really  resemble the real Leon Klinghoffer only, is it fair to use his name?

Ultimately, I’m in two minds about it: I think the piece deals with issues that are pertinent, and in a way which is helpful to the broader discussion, and I reject the claims that it legitimizes what takes place. Admittedly, my knowledge of the piece is not a deep as it could be, and I’d certainly be interested in the input of those more intimately acquainted with the work. On the other hand, however, I’m uneasy about the fact that this is not a work of fiction, but something that happened to real people, and whose families are still grieving. I’m not sure if the first outweighs the second, and I’m not sure if those qualms would stop me from being a part of the piece if the opportunity arose. Perhaps it’s simply ‘too soon’?

Do you think the sensitivities & concerns of the Klinghoffer family should be considered?

Do you think the piece legitimizes the terrorists’ actions? 



What do you think?