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Political Minimalism and “The Death of Klinghoffer”

Since I could not justify spending hundreds of dollars for tickets to “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, I did the next best thing, which was to take out a CD from the Columbia University library. Something told me that the work was a bit off, so I wanted to reduce my financial liability to a minimum—the price of a subway ride back and forth from my old workplace.

My goal was to come to terms with the opera as an artistic/political statement rather than comment on Zionist attempts to squelch it, as ably reported by Bill Dobbs in CounterPunch.

I first became aware of composer John Adams back in the 1970s when I was always on the lookout for works by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Since Adams was touted at the time as the new kid on the block, I made sure to pick up a recording of “Shaker Loops” when it came out in 1987, a piece like most of Reich and Glass that was calculated to appeal to the average listener as a kind of ear candy. As the classical music counterpart to Kraftwerk or Brian Eno, minimalism was about as close as you could come to the pleasure of pre-20th century classical music, joined on these terms later on by the neo-romanticism of composers like Henry Górecki.

Eventually Adams “outgrew” such minimalism and developed a style that was more harmonically and rhythmically complex while retaining trace elements of the minimalism of his early years. This is the style that prevails in “The Death of Klinghoffer”, a work that despite being performed in the Metropolitan Opera House is not really an opera, but much more of an oratorio hearkening back to Handel and other baroque composers.

There is very little interaction between the principals of the work, a function obviously of the deep estrangement between Palestinian militants and cruise ship passengers who must have regarded them as creatures from another planet.

The work proceeds as a series of solos from the crew, Mr. Klinghoffer, Mrs. Klinghoffer, the Palestinians, and three female passengers who are incidental to the action. Punctuating these solos are offerings from the chorus that function much as they did in Greek tragedy, namely to draw Universal meaning out of the story being told.

There is no dialogue as such between any of the main characters. Once they are given their cue, they sing for between five and seven minutes about the on-board confrontation and its aftermath. For the average Met burgher willing to shell out $200 for a good seat, I doubt that they saw much to look forward to, if based on those prospects. They say that ticket sales are going slow. I wonder if that is more of a function of the leanness of the offering rather than sympathy for “Palestinian terrorists”. After all, if I had $400 to spend on an opera for me and Mrs. Proyect, I’d much rather spend it on “La Bohème”, with its loveable cast of 19th century beatniks singing their hearts out.

Like most composers of modern operas, Adams likely considered the possibility of including a recognizable tune like “Musetta’s Waltz” to be selling out to the bourgeoisie. Or maybe I am giving him too much credit as a radical since as a “political” composer, there’s some question of what his politics amounts to.

The libretto was written by Alice Goodman, a woman brought up as a Reform Jew but who converted to Christianity as an adult. The conversion must have gone well since she eventually became the chaplain at Trinity College in England. For Goodman, the choruses became an opportunity for her to wax poetic, without any particular concern for the lyric’s relationship to contemporary Mideast realities. In Act One, Scene One a chorus begins with these words:

Is not the ocean their past?

Landscape of night for Him

Who is called All-Seeing, untouched

by Storms, deep-silted with the motes

of carrion which stand for light.

Motes of carrion which stand for light? What is the good reverend talking about? Your guess is as good as mine.

When it came to the Palestinians, she is much more direct. One of the characters is named Rambo, clearly not the name his Muslim parents gave him but one given to him by passengers on account of his belligerence. These are the opening words of Rambo’s solo:

You are always complaining

Of your suffering

But wherever poor men

Are gathering they can

Find Jews getting fat.

Considering the complaint of the Zionist protesters that the opera romanticized the hijackers, you’d think that this portrait of Rambo, who comes off second best to Henry Ford, might have assuaged them since it is so villainous. But what really undercut that possibility was the manner in which the Klinghoffers were portrayed, coming off not so nearly as refined as the chorus, whose words obviously reflected the sensibility of the well-educated Hoffman family that sent their daughter to Harvard.

Leon Klinghoffer sings:

Look at that gull,

Think he’ll land in the pool?

That’s better. We’ll

Bring home a tan anyway.

Later on Marilyn Klinghoffer reflects on her husband’s killing:

Who could have imagined

Such a business,

Such mishugas?

If director Tom Morris had the courage of his convictions, he would have instructed the woman singing this role to affect the accent of Barbra Streisand in “Yentl”. Given the coarseness of the Klinghoffers in their fleeting moments on stage, I cannot help but wonder if that was the real beef of their kids, not any romanticizing of terrorists.

Poor Alice Hoffman was blackballed after writing this libretto back in 1991. In a January 9, 2012 interview with the Guardian, she states that she couldn’t get work after Klinghoffer and adds that her mistake was making the Palestinians too sympathetic and their victims flawed. I guess she should have had Rambo eat Leon Klinghoffer’s heart.

klinghoffer-final-videoSixteenByNine540

In my view her real mistake as well as John Adams’s was in trying to make a Statement about Israel and the Palestinians when they were obviously in over their heads.

How in the world can you possibly “humanize” the Palestinians when the event being rendered artistically defies such an intention? Shooting and then throwing an elderly man in a wheelchair overboard was a barbarian act that became grist for the Zionist propaganda mill. The hijackers were members of the Popular Liberation Front, a group led by Muhammad Zaidan that was closely tied to Syria. They felt stabbed in the back when the Baathists refused to allow the Achille Lauro to be diverted to a Syrian port.

They were attempting to exchange the hostages for the release of fifty Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Klinghoffer was killed as the first step in escalating pressure on the authorities. When they learned that Egypt, under the impression that there had been no deaths, was willing to give them save haven, they kept the killing a secret.

As tended to happen so often as a result of Palestinian desperation, any short-term gain was undercut by a public relations deficit. It is understandable why a suffering people would resort to suicide bombings and the like. However, in more recent years there’s been recognition for the need to put enormous political and economic pressure on Israel of the kind that finally broke the back of South African apartheid. As such, terrorism is counter-productive.

If John Adams and Aiice Hoffman were even one-tenth as political as they thought they were, they might have considered a different theme, one focused on the plight of Palestinian political prisoners whom the ill-considered Achille Lauro hijacking was intended to free. They might have found inspiration in a Beethoven opera titled Fidelio that would certainly have been worth the $400 I might have ponied up. It is about the plight of Florestan, a freedom fighter locked up in a Spanish dungeon. Although the language is dated, a good librettist might want to update Florestan’s aria for the 21st century:

God! What darkness here!

O somber silence!

My surrounding deserted;

No living thing apart from me,

O heavy trial!

Yet righteous is God’s will!

I don’t grumble

The measure of misery stands with you.

In life’s springtime days

Happiness has escaped me.

the truth, I dared speak it,

and these chains are my reward.

Readily I endure all afflictions,

a shameful end is my fate,

Sweet comfort in my heart;

I’ve done my duty!

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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