Kate Maltby Kate Maltby

This opera is simplistic and dangerous. So is banning it

My father’s house was razed
In 1948
When the Israelis passed
over our street


I’ve never forgotten the opening lines to John Adam’s 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. Crisp, elegiac, this  ‘Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ rises up to a moment of anguished dissonance as it spits out the word ‘Israelis’. It’s beautiful. It’s also the most egregious romanticisation of Palestinian terrorism outside the muralled bunkers of the Gaza Strip.

In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, a chorus of shrouded Palestinian women form a funeral procession as they intone their complaint, eventually parting to reveal a 5-year-old boy, cradled in the arms of his weeping, widowed mother. Marking the start of a libretto deeply versed in biblical codes – lyricist Alice Goodman is an Anglican priest and theologian, born into Judaism – the day ‘when the Israelis passed over our street’ becomes an image of Exodus. It’s a Palestinian appropriation of the Jewish Passover, when the Angel of Death is said to have culled the first-born sons of their Egyptian enemy, but famously ‘passed over’ the houses of Hebrew slaves. The message is clear: each time the Jews escape subjugation, they find a way to make other innocents suffer in turn. I squirmed in my seat.

No wonder the plaza at the Met was crammed with protestors on Monday’s opening night. Even former Mayor Giuliani popped by to warn against rehabilitating violent terrorists (though he curiously forget to mention the day he personally cut the ribbon on Gerry Adams’ NYC fundraising tour in the pre-Good Friday days of 1994.)

Because, who was Klinghoffer? As the title suggests, John Adams opera presents him impersonally, a sacrificial victim, his death the inevitable climax of cosmic struggles. In reality, Leon Klinghoffer was a 69 year old Jewish-American, murdered by Palestinian terrorists when they hijacked an Italian cruise ship in 1985. Contrary to the opera, he was almost certainly killed as much because he was a wheelchair user as because he was a Jew –it proved impossible to transport his chair to the deck on which the hijackers had chosen to hold their prisoners, so they shot him, and ordered the ship’s staff to throw his body and wheelchair overboard.

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