The Death of Klinghoffer was composer John Adams's 1991 follow-up to Nixon in China, arguably the most popular if not the best American opera of the last half-century. Nixon had already been somewhat controversial, as its title character was still alive at the time it premiered. For Klinghoffer Adams and librettist Alice Goodman raised the stakes, making an opera of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder by the hijackers of Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Not nearly as memorable musically as Nixon, Klinghoffer is best known for being controversial. Give a performance and people will protest. From the beginning, what's been protested is the creators' failure to sufficiently demonize the terrorists. Because the terrorist singers are allowed to state their viewpoint in their own terms instead of singing something like, "We hate Jews because we're mean," the opera is accused of "glorifying" terrorists. "Glorifying" is the standard term employed by the censorious when morally questionable characters in media aren't demonized to the satisfaction of certain sensibilities. Even though Jimmy Cagney's character in The Public Enemy dies a gruesome death, that film was accused of "glorifying" gangsters because Cagney looked cool until he died. So it has been with crime movies ever since. A certain mentality never trusts audiences to make their own sound judgments; it requires art to become propaganda, moral or political, telling audiences quite explicitly what they should think of questionable characters. Gangsters should show no appealing (much less redeeming) qualities; nor should terrorists.
The Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Klinghoffer this week, and the protesters were led, rhetorically at least, by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. Giuliani released a statement explaining his protest while defending himself against the charge of philistinism. I am not so a cultural illiterate, America's Mayor writes: "As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is
one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music." Alas, Klinghoffer is politically and hence morally incorrect. It is "factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine."
Giuliani's tortured explication of what's "appropriate" is revealing. He argues that the hijacking and murder must be understood as cynically motivated to promote the brand of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the organization with which the world must deal. It seems important to Giuliani that the murder be seen as a dispassionate act, not as a lashing out by angry people. The key sentences in Giuliani's screed are: " It was not the act of people feeling oppressed. This was the act of an
organized group seeking international recognition, moral equivalency,
and money." Therefore, any scene or aria in which Palestinian characters express feelings of oppression and grievance are "inaccurate" and "damaging."
A consistent part of the right-wing reaction to terrorism against its interests or allies is to deny the legitimacy of grievances. The right-wing argument is always that terrorists hate their targets not for what we do, but for what we are. A corollary argument is that the terrorists, rather than making reprisals against perceived oppressors, are always the aggressors. This fits a popular picture of Islam portraying the religion as always hostile and always on the offensive against infidels purely by virtue of their faith. From this standpoint, to let a terrorist character on stage say or sing what an author might fairly imagine is on his mind, even while making his terrorism obviously odious, is always subversive. Instead, the terrorist, or the enemy agent, must be motivated exclusively by hate, fanaticism, or selfish personal ambition. Anything else might make audiences think, even if the authors clearly don't intend audiences to take the villain's side. By protesting The Death of Klinghoffer, Giuliani claims he wants people to know the truth about the story behind the opera, but the truth about him is that he doesn't want people to think. He wants them to hate. I imagine most people who watch the opera will hate the terrorists anyway, but for people like Giuliani it has to be the right kind of hate, and it's up to him, apparently, to teach us how to hate properly. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote on a lower rung of musical-theater ambition, "you have to be carefully taught."