I love opera. I was once a regular contributor to NPR’s “At the Opera,” and that privilege lasted for almost three years. I attend the Metropolitan opera as often as I can—I also attend the Chelsea Opera, the NY City Opera (when it existed), and the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown almost every summer.
The Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, has a constitutional as well as an artistic right to produce whatever he wants. However, his choice of The Death of Klinghofferis an abdication of moral responsibility, political sensitivity, and gravitas. Gelb’s showcasing of this opera is equivalent to a college president’s decision to allow ISIS, Hamas, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban to speak on campus because “all sides must be heard and understood” because “all points of view are equally valid.”
Blood libels against Israel and the Jews, mythic pseudo-histories—genocidal narratives—have permeated the Western campuses. These dangerous falsehoods claim the privilege of free speech and academic freedom and they have been welcomed by the intelligentsia. Now, these same ideas are making their debut amidst the trappings of high culture.
As a long-time feminist fan of opera, I would not boycott an opera because the female heroes are betrayed, go mad, kill themselves, or are murdered.
Gilda, Norma, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, Carmen, Lucia, Tosca, Lulu, Isolde, Marie (Berg’s Wozzeck), Brünnhilde, Leonora, Azucena, Massenet’s Manon, and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, all the Russians—die singing. As in life, our great operas are tragedies in which the heroes die.
But, in opera, where there are heroes, there are also villains.
The villain in Puccini’s Tosca is unmistakable. He is Scarpia, the police chief of Rome who tortures political prisoners and attempts to rape the great singer, Floria Tosca. We do not get a back-story about Scarpia’s dysfunctional childhood, nor do we sympathize or identify with him.
He is a heartless villain and the opera does not allow us to pity or sympathize with him. We are meant to fear and despise him, perhaps even hate him.
Likewise, in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, we are not meant to sympathize with Lucia’s brother, Lord Enrico Ashton; or with Rigoletto’s lecherous boss, the Duke of Mantua, or his paid assassin, Sparafucile; or with Cio-Cio San’s Pinkerton. (And for those who immediately think of Othello: Yes, we sympathize with him, even though he murders his wife in an honor killing and thereafter immediately commits suicide. Othello is not the villain; Iago, who has goaded him into it, and who wants Othello’s position, is the fiend.)
In the Klinghoffer opera we sympathize with the villains—who are, after all, terrorists.
This is something new.
The Death of Klinghoffer demonizes Israel—which is what anti-Semitism is partly about today. It also incorporates lethal Islamic and, by now, universal pseudo-histories about Jewish Israel and Jews. The opera beatifies terrorism, both musically and in terms of the libretto. Composer John Adams has given the opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians a beautiful, sacred, musical “halo,” à la Bach.
The lament of the Exiled Palestinians is meant—but fails—to equal that of Verdi’s celebrated chorus of exiled Jews in Babylon, in Nabucco (“Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate”). The Jews are longing for Jerusalem and for Solomon’s destroyed First Temple. Adams sets the brief exile of Palestinians beside that of exiled Jews who have been longing for Jerusalem for millennia—and this strengthens the way in which the libretto renders the Holocaust of European Jews as morally equivalent to what the Palestinians refer to as the “Naqba” (Catastrophe).
Penny Woolcock, together with composer John Adams, directed the British movie version of this opera. In an on-camera interview, she reveals, candidly and without shame, a series of such false moral equivalencies, which she delivers in an unnervingly soft and girlish but school-marmish voice: “You can’t understand Israel without the Holocaust and you can’t understand Palestinian suicide bombing without understanding the Naqba.”
Adams’s Chorus of Exiled Jews is not angelic. It is dogged, almost mechanical, industrial, aggressive—relentless, military.
Those who identify as “Palestinians” do so by stealing the mantle of Jewish and Black South African victimhood. The Palestinians insist, falsely, that they, too, have undergone a Holocaust at Israeli hands and that they, too, are living under Israeli-style Apartheid. This is a lie, but by now almost everyone believes it is true.
This opera (and the movie version of it) views six million murdered Jews as morally equivalent to 550,000-600,000 Arabs who were not murdered, not ethnically cleansed, but who were dispersed, driven to flee their homes by Arab leaders who told them they would return as soon as the Jews had been driven into the sea.
In the movie version of the opera, Woolcock shows us a black and white fictionalized or doctored film in which Israelis are shown brutally forcing peaceful, traditional Palestinians out of their ancestral homes. The Israeli men brandish guns and are very violent. We are not shown fictionalized or actual footage of the Arab Legion attacking the Jews, which is what really happened, nor are we shown Israelis warning villages to evacuate, which also happened.
The historical black and white footage of skeletal Jewish corpses and of Jews being loaded into boxcars on their way to concentration camps is real but fleeting. Woolcock shows us a young Jewish man in a fictionalized black and white film. He is a presumed survivor of the Warsaw ghetto—and he turns up in another fictionalized movie as an angry and violent Israeli who menaces an elderly Arab woman, discards her possessions, and moves into her home. This man is one of the two elderly Israelis on board the ship in the opera movie. (In reality, there were no Israelis on board.)
The opera movie switches from World War II-era black and white footage to contemporary Technicolor in which the Israeli Defense Forces are shown harassing and punishing peaceful Palestinians, which is meant to explain and justify why young men turn themselves into human homicide bombs.
Neither the opera nor the movie version acknowledge that just as there were Arab Muslim refugees, another group of Arabs—Jewish Arabs―were forced into exile at the same time. Between 1948 and 1972, between 820,000-850,000 Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia were also forced into exile.
Some Muslim Arabs remained in the Holy Land.
Today, Israel has 1.7 million Arab Muslim and Christian citizens, or about 20 percent of its population. Jews are willing to live with Muslims and Christians—it is the Palestinian and Arab Muslim leadership who want to ethnically cleanse Jews and other infidels—especially Christians—from allegedly Muslim lands.
Quite apart from any anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist content, and contrary to what Goodman, Adams, and Woolcock say, the libretto is not even-handed. The villains have more lines.
For example, the four terrorists, including Molqui, the man who murders Klinghoffer, command eleven arias—twelve, if you add the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. The Klinghoffers have two arias each, toward the end of the opera; add the Exiled Jewish Chorus and you have five arias for the innocent victims versus twelve arias for their victimizers.
The Palestinians sing: “My father’s house was razed/in nineteen-forty-eight/when the Israelis passed/Over our street.” The Jews sing: “When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left.” And Rambo sings: “But wherever poor men/Are gathered they can/Find Jews getting fat … America/Is one big Jew.”
The obsession with Jews and money is reminiscent of Nazi-era propaganda and with the Russian forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
In my opinion, the libretto is sub-standard and the music is merely “okay”—for atonal music. I have written about this elsewhere.
Librettist Alice Goodman’s terrorists sing that they are “men of ideals,” not “criminals,” and that “this is an action for liberation.”
Really, who were these so-called “men of ideals”? In reality, they were Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) operatives. On board the ship, Nazi-style, Entebbe-style, they tried to separate the Jews from the other passengers. Two elderly Austrians identified themselves as Jews and were beaten and manhandled. Please note: They were Jews—not Israelis. The remaining Jews, including the Klinghoffers and their friends, did not identify themselves as Jews. These hardened terrorists did not allow Marilyn Klinghoffer, who was exhausted, and in pain from colon cancer, to lie down. They forced the passengers to stand under the broiling Mediterranean sun for days. They forced trembling passengers to hold live grenades. They lied. They told the crew and passengers that there were twenty terrorists aboard and that they were going to blow up the ship. In their very limited English, they cursed America and praised Yasser Arafat.
Contrary to the opera (and to the movie version of the opera), the hijacking of the Achille Lauro was a fourteen-man operation, and the orders came from the very top: from Yasser Arafat and Abu Abbas. Their mission: the return of 50 Palestinian terrorists being held in Israeli jails, beginning with Samir Kuntar, the man who had murdered two young Israelis and two very small children in Nahariyah in 1979. Palestinians consider Kuntar a great hero, and he was eventually exchanged in a prisoner swap. The passengers were to be held hostage until these killers/”freedom fighters” were returned. No one was supposed to be murdered.
Phyllis Chesler is an internationally acclaimed author. Her 15th book, “An American Bride in Kabul” received the National Jewish Book Award. She is an ISGAP Fellow.
(To Be Continued Next Week)