Terror at the Opera: Klinghoffer and the Extremists

November 12, 2014   •   By Rory Tolan

Left: Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman) and Jesse Kovarsky (Omar) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


THE OPERA opened in helter-skelter. TENORS AND TERRORISTS DON’T MIX, a sign declared in boldface. Scattered like set pieces on Lincoln Center’s illuminated steps, placards proclaimed the villainy of Manhattan’s creative class. The bystanders spanned generations. Youth ogled the spectacle with their mouths agape. Pensioners loitered in the frigid air to enjoy the loudest fanfare for an opera they had ever heard. Heating themselves on anger, the insulted screamed red-faced into the night. Shouts ricocheted across the plaza like so many misfires.

“This is an ISIS love song,” a woman wailed. Her companion yelled, “Tonight at the Met — Al Qaeda: A Romance.” They fanned each other’s fury.

The Death of Klinghoffer, by the composer John Adams, had already sustained two heckler-rattled performances. On opening night Rudolph Giuliani, picketing outside, had led a 500-strong mob that included rabbis, politicians, professional sufferers, and political opportunists to charge the Met with anti-Semitism and “historical damage.” He and former governor of New York David Paterson and Congressman Peter King, who flanked him in the march, never attended the opera themselves.

Raving at the barricades, the protesters begged the Met to drop the curtain before it had even been raised. On the evening I attended, October 29, the opera’s antagonists fussed with equal fervor. Lincoln Center, a man claimed, was staging “propaganda for Islamism.” One woman, almost frothing at the mouth, called the production “racist” and an “insult to the arts.” A bug-eyed conspiracist accused Peter Gelb, the Met’s Jewish general manager, of “taking terror money.”

As I roved toward the glass gables of the Metropolitan Opera House, a leader of the rally called me a collaborator. The ticket in my fist had made her brow merge with her hairline, as if I were clutching the switch to a suicide vest. “You know what happens in the show?” she asked, needlessly. “A man is shot in the head — pushed off the ship. Go in there and his death is on you.”

The Death of Klinghoffer_1Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

She was partly right. Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound vacationer, does get a bullet in the brain and a burial at sea. So it happened in October 1985 to the real Klinghoffer, who became one of the first random American civilians to die brutally at the hands of Middle Eastern extremists. Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, a Jewish couple from New York, had boarded a cruise ship to Egypt when four Palestinians hijacked it with jade pennants and Kalashnikov rifles. The extortionists demanded that Israel release 50 of their jailed compatriots. Unmoored by Israel’s silence, the guerrillas searched for another course. They murdered the 69-year-old stroke victim and threw his body into the Mediterranean.

“The production is unethical,” the woman told me. She added that it was “immoral.” Her fingers twitched on the handles of a wheelchair she had pulled up the steps, empty except for a photo enshrined on the cushion. A phantom of the opera. Klinghoffer stared out at me, flat and matte.


The orchestra, tuning, slid out of cacophony to the unison pitch of A. Glittering chandeliers rose to the rafters. In a thousand crimson ripples, the damask curtain swept up into the gold proscenium. Lights out, voices.

On stage a throng of lanterns broke the dark. A huddled mass of sopranos in black hijabs trilled a vibrato lament. Behind them waste and welter filled the dun horizon.

This was the start of what has rankled so many. The opera begins with a chorus of Palestinians counting their losses, taking stock of their little lives, singing a dirge for homes of theirs bulldozed in the night to pave the way for Israeli condominiums. It is the complaint of a people in exile, a trope in Western art more commonly associated with the Hebrews of Exodus and their dispersed descendants. The at times Biblical poetry of the libretto — by Alice Goodman, a Jewish woman who became an Anglican priest — and the epic theatrics only underscore this similitude. The parallel has addled many with their heads in the sand, and the opera’s decision to give the destitute Gazans a voice, or an entire choir of voices, has thrown the PC apologists into a state of white-knuckled apoplexy. That John Adams has filled their words with a melody of almost transcendent beauty hasn’t helped matters. Decrying the paucity of their lives, the women end their aria with a blood-chilling dream of restitution. They gather bricks from their toppled homes and say, of Israel, that they “will take the stones he broke / Will take the stones he broke / Will take the stones he broke / And break his teeth.”

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The fearmongers will be glad to learn that Adams pairs this prologue with an Israeli chorus, allowing them equal time to ruminate on the state of their people. Plodding on stage with leaden suitcases as inseparable as leg irons, they are also exiles, fugitives of perennial horror, refugees in character as much as circumstance. Yet their luggage also shows that they are, unlike the Palestinians, arrivistes. Their flight has been a homecoming. At one of the most stirring points in the prelude, Israel addresses her repatriates and says, “I am an old woman. I thought you were dead.” But they are building among ruins new as well as ancient. While the Palestinians stumble with candles in the night, stubbing their toes in a ghetto devoid of power (electric and otherwise), the Israelis hail their high hopes in an anthem of high rises: Look, they say, there’s “the Dome of the Rock. And there the apartments.”

Inspired by the structure of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Adams calls on these choruses throughout the play to widen the scope, to offer the long view, and to echo the clash of civilizations. The ensembles sketch a portrait of Palestinian resentment. Painting in broad strokes a vivid backdrop of hate, they provide a history for the hijackers’ livid psychosis. When the terrorists belt out their baritone invectives, they vent their spleen in perspective. The backstory here, or even the admission that there is one, has turned stomachs throughout the Northeast. To the discomfort of many, the baddies are not clichéd lampoons or two-dimensional cartoons. Grumbling that the gunmen should have no voice at all, some critics sit through performances with their fingers in their ears, to make the men mere cardboard cutouts. The protesters want the characters to operate in a vacuum of motivation — but that would be a symptom of bad art. Because Adams and Goodman are anything but amateurs, they flesh out their murderous ideologues to the outer limits of their craft — since, unlike their critics, they prefer stories in the line of Shakespeare rather than Michael Bay.


The carpers are right about one thing: some of the villains are indeed anti-Semites. At times their monologues collapse into racist philippics, far exceeding the latitude of competing claims for land. Anti-Semitism is more than bigotry, involving elements of conspiracy and paranoia, the delusion that Jews exert outsize influence over banks, media, and all the styles of power that these sectors control. A moral sickness resembling schizophrenia, anti-Semitism presents a uniquely complex and disturbing picture of the way the world works. The myth is a common snare for political malcontents and impressionable paupers. So it is fitting that the Palestinian Rambo, without a word from the Israel jailers, sticks his spite to a Jewish American. Ranting in Klinghoffer’s ear, he snarls, “You are always complaining / Of your suffering / But wherever poor men / Are gathered they can / Find Jews getting fat.” That Rambo and his cohort peddle racist platitudes says nothing about the moral stance of the play, however. Nor do anti-Semitic characters indicate anti-Semitic authors. Shocked by the pirates’ stupidity and malice, the opera’s naysayers misplace their disgust, mistaking the artwork for the artist. They confuse depiction with defense — the trademark error of philistines.

This attack on the opera, the claim that it abets bloodshed and prejudice, is also inexcusable given the depravity of the criminals. The characters condemn themselves. Minutes in, a tone of disgrace fills the space between notes — loud and unyielding, like a bout of tinnitus. The terrorists, while singing high-minded hymns of a tranquil future, debase themselves in trigger-happy flights of anarchy. They come off as have-not nihilists, restive pawns, and dumb instruments of violence. Troublingly, Klinghoffer’s assassin is a child — the ultimate insult to the future. In a flashback the boy, Omar, recalls his mother telling him her “heart will break / If I do not walk / In paradise / Within two days / And abandon my soul.” She goads him to the Palestinian Liberation Front and plies him with dreams of suicide, as if their only opportunity for freedom is to participate in their own annihilation. Moreover, the opera rarely grants him a word. He is played by the work’s only non-singer, a dancer, since Omar has no genuine voice of his own. Even his dance before the murder, a pained and contorted tarantella, mimics the gestures of his tribe when they send him off in Act I — all of it over a monotonous, repetitious ostinato that becomes a canticle for the brainwashed. Klinghoffer himself addresses the thugs’ emptiness. Rounding on them in his wheelchair, he sings, “We’re human. We are / The kind of people / You like to kill.” The opera’s frame story also complicates the hijackers’ cause: recounted by the survivors years later, the plot pushes the Palestinian scenes two degrees into the past, making them recollections of recollections. The play throws a spotlight on the fragility of cultural memory. In the labyrinth of time, the oppressed have lost the narrative. This is hell on high water.

Despite the rabid picketers and the soapbox fanatics who gull them, The Death of Klinghoffer indicts the killers with three hours’ worth of evidence. “I didn’t start out with the idea of being evenhanded, and I suspect that neither did Alice Goodman,” wrote Adams in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction. “Neither of us was trying to parse out judgment in equally measured doses.” It can be baffling, then, that there is any controversy at all. The claim that the opera supports terror and racism is so ludicrous as to insult the public intelligence. It would be laughable were it not dangerous. With their libelous flyers and spurious signs, the censors mobbing the Met are trafficking in a typically American form of dishonesty. This much is obvious: the real source of the uproar is our refusal to acknowledge the origins of terror.


A week after the mass butchery of 9/11, Susan Sontag courted national rage in the pages of The New Yorker. “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public,” she wrote. Talking heads portrayed the attack as a hate crime against our freedom. In the blinkered view of the media’s infinite manikins, the Arabs assaulted the United States out of a distaste for democracy. Few admitted then that the slaughter was “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” By her reckoning, “the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality.” The Met’s attackers offer a case study in social denialism, making Sontag’s rebuke equally appropriate today. The apologists of American and Israeli (and Palestinian) pugilism continue to whitewash reality.

No act of terrorism is defensible. Targeting arbitrary civilians, Middle Eastern merchants of death are savage, indiscriminate, and evil. Yet they fill their ranks by exploiting histories the US and its allies have had a hand in creating. Despite their racist and pseudo-religious overtures, they stake their hate in political terra firma. The Death of Klinghoffer returns its audience to planet Earth, and the force of impact, for some, has proven concussive.

At the vanguard of the protests is the Klinghoffer family. To calm the critics, the Met allowed Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, to print a jeremiad in the opera’s playbill. “Terrorism cannot be rationalized,” they wrote. “It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance.” Neither can grievance be tolerated as a vehicle for political ignorance. Explanation does not equal justification. When cavilers rail against the context the Palestinian chorus provides, they out themselves as enemies of any context whatsoever. Such stupidity is unconscionable. In fact it imperils American and Israeli and Palestinian lives.


The opera ends in a breakdown. Though Adams begins his work with a grand political gesture, letting dual choruses declaim the woes of their civilizations, he concludes it in the most apolitical way imaginable. Klinghoffer’s wife, Marilyn, simply laments the loss of her best friend. The searing glare of the upper deck fades to the dreary gray of the lower cabins. Closing in, almost smothering her, the stage walls summon the claustrophobia of a crypt. Shaking, nearly retching, she sings, “He lives in me. I grieve / As a pregnant woman / Grieves for the unseen / Long imagined son.” This room, this woman, this pain — that is the opera’s final testament. The intimacy, the isolation, and the torment reduce politics to a distant memory. These are inconsequential innocents — the Klinghoffers and all their analogues. They are plain folk caught in the crossfire of ideology.

The Death of Klinghoffer_3Paulo Szot (Captain) and Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

All terrorism is a category error. Drunk on fanaticism, its stooges mistake individuals for nations. Adams redeems the particular, like every good artist. With the lone image of the lone suffering widow, he shows that all murder is personal. And the personal is the ultimate antidote to ideology, which makes all persons a people, effaces them, and lumps them under the sign of the same.

That is what the opera says to the terrorists. It is also what the opera says to the critics — ideologues whose tendency to silence rather than listen makes them complicit in the same hatred.

When the curtain fell I plowed through the crowd, awash in the aftersound of a standing ovation. I wound down the Met’s spiral steps to the red-carpeted lobby, where Chagall’s Triumph of Music hangs like a promise. Out in the plaza, all was still. The protesters had vanished into the night. I looked for their wheelchair but could not find it anywhere. Klinghoffer was at rest.


Rory Tolan is an editor at Vice and a writer for Salon and other publications.