Many of those who’ve criticized the Metropolitan Opera’s cancellation of the “Live in HD” transmission of the Met’s upcoming production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” lamented the fact that the cancellation removes an opportunity to debate the contentious issues surrounding the opera. Well, the Met’s critics may not get their chance to see “Klinghoffer,” at least without heading to Lincoln Center. But they sure got their debate. The cancellation itself has engendered all the debate anyone could want.
And as my Facebook friends (and anyone else with the misfortune to be in earshot) can attest, I’ve had my say and then some, mostly about the opera’a alleged antisemitism and appeasement of terror. (About the cancellation, I have been unequivocal: once scheduled, the theater transmission should not have been cancelled. It makes the Met look indecisive and too easily persuaded, and cheaply bestows the status of free-speech martyrdom on Adams and his collaborators.) Yet for all that, I don’t think I’ve quite gotten to the heart of what most disturbs me about “The Death of Klinghoffer.” So, for what I hope is but can’t promise will be the last time, here goes.
In 1985, a man named Leon Klinghoffer was shot and killed aboard a cruise ship, then his body was dumped into the ocean. Whatever its geopolitical implications, Mr. Klinghoffer’s death was primarily a personal tragedy. A human being was killed. His loved ones grieved, and continue to grieve to this day.
Not long after (or perhaps even during) their successful collaboration on the 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” a creative team headed by theater director Peter Sellars, and also including composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris, began the conceptualizing that would, in March 1991, result in the premiere of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” In very short, the opera dramatizes and semi-fictionalizes the circumstances of the real Mr. Klinghoffer’s killing, using him and his wife Marilyn (who died in 1986) by name as characters.
In other words, “Klinghoffer” uses a then-recent real-life personal tragedy involving non-public people (unlike “Nixon in China,” whose characters are major historical figures, hence fair game) as the basis of a work of art that, without regard for the feelings of anyone involved, appropriates a personal tragedy for the artistic and political purposes of the opera’s creators.
I find this to be an act of unconscionable arrogance and callousness. If Sellars, Adams, Goodman, Morris et al. had something important to say about about terror, or Middle East relations, or whatever else was on their mind, they could have invented their own scenario and left the Klinghoffers the hell out of it.
As it is, the Klinghoffers’ daughters, who attended the premiere anonymously, despised the opera then and despise it now. Whatever our personal feelings about artistic freedom, can’t we also see the overriding virtue of sparing the feelings of the Klinghoffer family? In a statement following the Met’s cancellation, John Adams wrote that “My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer.” Never mind the unmitigated gall of a composer crediting his own work with “great dignity.” The Klinghoffers’ daughters, who have a greater right than Adams to speak on their parents’ behalf, vehemently disagree. I’m on their side, as I think we all should be.
Let Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer rest in peace. And until they repent, let the creators of “The Death of Klinghoffer” be denounced for their shameless artistic vandalism.