Death of Klinghoffer

The premiere of Death of Klinghoffer is over. There were protests, but the crowd was smaller than expected. There was occasional in-house booing and disruptions (in particular one man kept shouting "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven") but the overall audience response was positive. John Adams received a rousing ovation. The controversy might live on, but now that the premiere is over, I hope actual dialogue of the opera can begin. Because, you know, now people have actually, uh, seen the opera.

First things first: no matter what your position is on the opera, a huge hand must be given to the entire cast and crew of this production. From Donald Palumbo and the amazing Met chorus to the conductor David Robertson, who constantly kept the tension and the menace in Adams' often difficult score, to the entire cast, from whom there was not one false note. Everyone was remarkable -- Death of Klinghoffer got the performance it deserved.  Whoever put together the program notes deserves a hand too -- they respectfully included Leon Klinghoffers' daughters' strongly worded objection to the opera, as well as beautifully written liner notes and included a performance history of this opera. The Metropolitan Opera presented this opera with care and tact.

Director Tom Morris's production attempted no big tricks, nothing fancy, but instead presented the opera in a straightforward fashion. The ship is mixed with a sandy floor that vaguely hints at the climate of the Mediterranean. The projections in the background explained some of the history behind the Achilles Lauro hijacking, and projections on the black curtain before and after the performance provided more background information. It was a little overly earnest, a bit like a Powerpoint presentation, but I think an opera like Klinghoffer needs a just-the-facts production to offset John Adams' music and Alice Goodman's dense but difficult (and controversial) libretto.

Ok now that I've gotten that out of the way, the burning question of the night was: is Death of Klinghoffer anti-Semitic? Does it glorify terrorism? The daughters of Leon Klinghoffer think so -- and considering the unimaginable pain they must have endured, their feelings are understandable. But from an objective point of view, the answer is: NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO.

Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer write in their condemnation of the opera that "terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance." The implication is that Alice Goodman's libretto rationalizes and "understands" terrorism. It does no such thing. There are two areas where I might see an opening for the anti-Semitic charge. The first is the opening Palestinian chorus. I'll just include the chorus, so one can decide whether it's anti-Semitic. Personally, I find the chorus to be the weakest part of the work, and it's preachy tone betrays not anti-Semitism on Alice Goodman's part but a Western attitude towards the Middle East conflict: this idea that the conflict can be summed up with a few pat soundbites. It comes across as a pedestrian history lesson, and if it were cut, I wouldn't miss it. Here it is:

My father's house was razed
In nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis passed
Over our street.
The house was built of stone
With a courtyard inside
Where, on a hot day, one
Could sit in shade
Under a tree, and have
A glass of something cool.
Coolness rose like a wave
From our pure well.
No one was turned away.
The doorstep had worn down:
I see in my mind's eye
A crescent moon.
Of that house, not a wall
In which a bird might nest
Was left to stand. Israel
Laid all to waste.
Though we have paid to drink
Our water, and our wood
Is sold to us, we thank
The only God.
Let the supplanter look
Upon his work. Our faith
Will take the stones he broke
And break his teeth.

The second area where I can possibly see the anti-Semitism accusation is the fact that John Adams wrote extremely compelling music for the hijackers. Mamoud's act one monologue occasionally sounds wistful and romantic, and is probably the musical highlight of the opera. However, I view the music as ironic. And many composers write their most compelling music for villains. The libretto itself does not glorify the hijackers, nor does it explain how they ended up on a ship terrorizing innocent passengers. The motives of the hijackers are if anything inscrutable -- perhaps the most riveting moment of the opera is Mamoud's act one monologue. Mamoud is the youngest hijacker, and his rambling thoughts jumps from his memories of listening to sad love songs to a rant about different birds that don't migrate to memories of his mother's death to a chilling refusal to accept any peace:

The day that I
And my enemy
Sit peacefully
Each putting his case
And working towards peace
That day our hope dies
And I shall die too.

Mamoud is in other words a by-now familiar figure that any counter-terrorism expert in the CIA can recognize: brainwashed, delusional, and frighteningly binary in thought. He dreams of romantic love songs but he's onboard a ship with an AK-47. Aubrey Allicock made a remarkable debut as Mamoud, his strong baritone and handsome looks gave us an inkling that had Mamoud been born in a different land, and not recruited to terrorize and hate, he might have had a chance. Instead, he's so young and already trapped in a personal hell that he willingly entered. The Captain (Paulo Szot's) attempts to reason with Mamoud come across as touchingly naive. 

The second act of the opera tips the libretto even more strongly against the terrorists. By now Mamoud is silenced, and the older, hardened hijackers take over. Molqi (Sean Pannikar) and "Rambo" (Ryan Speedo Green) are menacing, hulking figures who cling to their automatic rifles and don't have any of the fanciful wistfulness of Mamoud. They are in other words career terrorists, and they don't even voice their motivations. The Klinghoffer daughters write that "the terrorists, portrayed by four distinguished opera singers, will be given a back story, an explanation for their brutal act of violence .... It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father." With all due respect to Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, this is simply not true. 

What the terrorists are given in the second act is a hint for how they were recruited. A "Palestinian woman" (Maya Lahyani) sings a long aria that starts out as a tender lullaby, but grows in fervor as she exhorts the men towards "martyrdom" and promises them glory in the after-life. John Adams writes this almost as a coloratura aria, with the exhortations becoming more aggressive and adamant over time. Again, this is is not a "backstory," it's not an "explanation." The lure of martyrdom is a well-known terrorist recruiting tactic and it's as present today as it was in 1985. Just look at the letters of the 9/11 hijackers. All of them drove those planes into the World Trade Center fully expecting that they were going to a glorious afterlife. 

Throughout the opera the "backstory" is given for several of the Achilles Lauro passengers, and they make up the heart and soul of the opera. I understand that many of the passengers in the opera might be composites, they might have a bit of creative license, but all of their backstories are filled with humanity. There's the brave Austrian woman who hid in her cabin during the entire ordeal. There's the Captain, who had to make the anguishing decision to "negotiate" with terrorists. There's a British dancer who simply wanted to entertain. 

And finally, there's Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer. The daughters say the opera "sullies the memory of a fine, principled sweet man." This is again false. In the opera Leon Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) might have been in a wheelchair but he was a fighter to the end. He even goes to his death with even a grim sense of humor: he says "I should have worn a hat." 

In one moment he barks at the hijackers that they can make all the excuses they want, but:

You don't give a shit,
Excuse me, about
Your grandfather's hut,
His sheep and his goat,
And the land he wore out.
You just want to see
People die.

Rambo taunts the man, but the exchange has stunning moral clarity: the hijackers can sing till the birds come home (literally in this libretto, birds are used as a constant symbol) but in the end they made the decision to terrorize a ship, they made the decision to murder the most helpless and vulnerable passenger on the ship. Terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Hamas vigorously screen their candidates. They look for the right combination, the right character traits. It's important to remember that for every recruited terrorist, there are so many who have the same background, live in the same area, have perhaps an even harder "backstory," but do not make the choice to pilot a plane into the Twin Towers or make videos of beheading journalists.

Marilyn Klinghoffer (Michaela Martens) is given the last word in the opera. It's an anguished monologue that establishes the character as a loving wife, a strong woman, and a voice for all the victims of terrorism. She sings these lines that today are even harder to hear, as thousands of people have died, more people are dying every day in Syria, in Iraq, in Gaza, in Israel, and the answer to all the bloodshed seems to be "we want more blood." Here are the final words of the opera:

I should have died.
If a hundred
People were murdered
And their blood
Flowed in the wake
Of this ship like
Oil, only then
Would the world intervene.
They should have killed me.
I wanted to die

The real life Leon Klinghoffer was shot and tossed overboard in his wheelchair. His voice was silenced forever on October 8. 1985. Marilyn Klinghoffer died of cancer in February 1986. But this opera gives them a voice. John Adams' opera and Alice Goodman's libretto does not glorify terrorism. It instead shines a light on the implacable hatred and lack of humanity that drives all acts of terror. The next time CNN reports another ISIS beheading, the next time Hamas releases an adamant statement about its refusal to negotiate, these words are more prescient than ever: 

You don't give a shit,
Excuse me, about
Your grandfather's hut,
His sheep and his goat,
And the land he wore out.
You just want to see
People die.


  1. Thank you, Ivy. I will be seeing it on Nov 8 and 11, and will make up my own mind, but I don't expect it to be very different from yours. I'm hoping others will write a little about the performances they see. It would give us a broad range of ideas.

    1. I think the response will be overall positive. I think many people bought a ticket expecting the work to have an anti-Semitic undertone but it certainly did not.

    2. Totally agree, Ivy... Despite the protests, this is a production that will very likely draw a crowd that usually doesn't come to the Met. I'm thinking especially of when From the House of the Dead (with last year's FrOsch, yet another highly-praised production that I won't see in Chicago) was the hottest ticket in Manhattan. Ditto Girard's Parsifal...

  2. Thank you for a rational report on a courageous piece of music theater. Understanding the terrorists, even "humanizing" them, does not mean condoning terrorism. Stephen Adams --

  3. . It comes across as a pedestrian history lesson

    You must be kidding. I find that beautiful and heartrending.


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