How Soon is Too Soon?Klinghoffer, Music as Social Commentary
Disclaimer:This topic deals with a controversial and sensitive ongoing political conflict. We all have different views on this situation and strong feelings about it.
The purpose of this unit is to focus on the problems associated with creating and staging a musical artistic work that is based on a controversial and sensitive ongoing political topic.
Achille LauroOn October 7, 1985 the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked by four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front off the coast of Egypt. The hijackers held the passengers and crew hostage, demanding the release of 50 Palestinians from Israeli prisons.
The hijackers were allegedly responding to the bombing of their headquarters by the Israeli Air Force on October 1, 1985.
Leon KlinghofferKlinghoffer was a retired American citizen who was on vacation with his wife for their 36th wedding anniversary. He was wheelchair-bound and also Jewish.
The hijackers murdered Leon Kinghoffer (age 69) by shooting him in the head and chest. They made members of the ships crew throw his body overboard.
John Adams (b. 1947)John Adams is an American composer known for his minimalistic style.
Adams composed an opera called Death of Klinghoffer that premiered in Brussels in 1991. He collaborated with librettist Alice Goodman and theater director Peter Sellars to create a work based on the Achille Lauro incident.
The Death of KlinghofferThe opera portrays serious political subject matter as episodes of reflection on the topic. Some of the most striking moments in the hijacking incident, such as the moment the hijackers revealed themselves or the moment that Klinghoffer was killed and thrown overboard, take place off-stage and without text
Peter Sellars on KlinghofferI didnt want to stage images we saw on CNN.
Sellars, the artistic director for the premiere, wanted to create an artistic portrayal of the events of the hijacking, rather than a literal, documentary-style account. The opera was meant to be symbolic and reflective.
Portrayal of TimeThere are also two different timelines happening in the libretto. While the Klinghoffers and hijackers are in the present tense, the Captain and the other survivors are all in the past tense. Why do you think this is so?There are also two different choruses, a chorus of exiled Palestinians and a chorus of exiled Israelis at the beginning of the operaThis sets up the historical context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
ControversySince its premiere, the work has often been considered an anti-Semitic opera, although none of the people involved in the production claim to have those kinds of views . Some have even nicknamed it the Terrorist Opera. The librettist has received death threats for being pro-Palestinian.
Boston, 2001When the Boston Symphony released its 20012002 orchestra concert schedule, they had planned to perform a few selections from Klinghoffer at an orchestra concert. No staging, not the full work, just a few selections. But shortly after September 11, the board of directors of the Boston Symphony decided to cancel the numbers and replace them. One of the members of the Boston chorus had lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks.Adams said, I was told that Boston audiences were too fragile to encounter my music at this timemeanwhile, I noticed that Seiji Ozawa, their music director, was here in San Francisco, conducting a crazy symphony by Berlioz that ends with a graphic execution and a manic descent into hell.
Things to think aboutShould art take a stance on controversial topics?
Is there any way to present sensitive topics without the creators being subjected to accusations of bias towards one side or the other?
Should public outcry result in the closing down of controversial art? At what point does this cross the line into censorship?
Op-ed in New York Times (2001)What is called for is self-control. That is what the Boston Symphony laudably exercised; and I hope that musicians who play to Israeli audiences will resume exercising it. There is no need to shove Wagner in the faces of Holocaust survivors in Israel and no need to torment people stunned by previously unimagined horrors with offensive challenges like The Death of Klinghoffer. Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of forbearance can be noble. Art is not blameless. Art can inflict harm.
Op-ed in New York Times (2001)But how patronizing for the orchestra's directors to presume what audiences will or will not find offensive. Of course, art can provide solace and comfort. Yet art can also incense and challenge us, make us squirm, make us think. The Boston Symphony missed an opportunity to present an acutely relevant work. It might have sponsored preconcert panels, bringing Middle East historians together with Mr. Adams, Ms. Goodman and the director Peter Sellars, who was involved with this opera from its inception.
New York City, 2014Death of Klinghoffer was staged at the Met this past November. There were, as anticipated, hundreds of protesters assembled near Lincoln Center Plaza who denounced the work as anti-Semitic and sympathetic to terrorists. Though people had threatened to disrupt the opera, the performance went on with only two real interruptions, along with some scattered bursts of chanting and booing.Peter Gelb, the Mets general manager, decided to cancel the works Live in HD broadcast across the nation. He did so at the request of the Anti-Defamation League as well as several prominent Jewish donors.
The Metropolitan Opera House
More things to think aboutAre we missing Adamss larger themes because of the outcry over details of character representation?In dealing with topics based on recent events, is it the composers job to tell all the truths? How representative to the truth should art be?How soon is too soon when basing artistic works on recent events? Remember that Death of Klinghoffer premiered only five years after the hijacking took place. Remember that the planning of the 2014 performance started long before events in the Middle East of this past summer, fall, and winter. How do you think this might be affecting reaction to the work?
Prologue, Scene 1 CHORUS OF EXILED PALESTINIANSMy 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.
SCENE 2C ARIA OF THE FALLING BODYMay the Lord God And His creation Be magnified In dissolution Nothing is lost But the sea-level Has risen fast Against the sea wall After the war In this part of town Good furniture Exposed to the rain Buckled and warped Malachite and brass Were quickly stripped And inlays worked loose
Locked bureau drawers Had their locks broken The souvenirs Which would be taken Fetched not a cent As for the papers No instrument Could find the sleepers Whose things these were None of the damage Water nor fire Nor any outrage Reported there Came to their notice As if secure In the Lord's justice Empty-handed But not hurriedly They were minded To go far away To go away Not to take action And so decay Followed defection Study the laws They celebrated Knowing this house The living and dead.