The Clare Spark Blog

October 21, 2014

The Klinghoffer protest and the problem of ‘realism’

KlinghofferprotestA rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and America has alarmed Jews, Israelis, and their supporters, hence the furor over the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Many of those protesting have focused on “moral equivalence” between Jews and Palestinians as the opera’s chief sin, and indeed, many journalists and critics in the mass media have fed into this impression. To my knowledge, only Phyllis Chesler has given a more detailed account of the pro-jihadist content of the opera, as she did last night: I assume that Chesler would not risk her reputation by making up the details that support her allegations of Jew-hatred. She saw the opera, while I have not. (For an even tougher essay by Alan Dershowitz see

This blog, however, has a different take on the problem of the opera’s presentation in this polarized environment (with current ultra-liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio supporting “free speech,” while the more conservative ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani supported the protesters). I will not address the politicization of “art” for I believe that all art of any genre is ideological, and that no artist in any medium can escape ideology reinforced by patronage, institutional context, and family or personal history. In this era of formalist criticism (at best—we should be so lucky to get even that in this ignorant period), I dare not hope to find broad agreement with my assumptions. Nor do I believe with politicians of either left or right that “speech” is ever “free.”

What is neglected in the current excitement is the problem of “realism” and what I write here is more about what we expect from art: do we hope for an enlargement of our imagining past, present and future, or an affirmation of our religion and politics (as in Nazi or Soviet glorification of labor and sacrifice (“socialist realism”), or do we latch onto the Enlightenment project of demystification—i.e., the tearing away of all veils to get at something either absolutely truthful or, if not that foolishly (?) ambitious, the unpacking of symbol and myth? [Readers of my blogs will not be surprised that I prefer the latter, but not without the recognition of opportunism, ambiguity, or unconscious errors of interpretation on my part or of those critics I admire.]

We would like to think that our favorite artists (usually those that affirm our belief systems) are beyond anything so tawdry as prejudice or hitching their stars to fashion and publicity; similarly, we like to believe that family photographs are not simply a posed or candid moment in time, but convey the essence of family bonds, not bondage to sadists and masochists.

Take the case of depicting a Palestinian terrorist, for instance the murderer of Leon Klinghoffer. How would a librettist or musician convey what drives such an individual or social movement to barbarism? How would we, in the brief period, s/he is onstage, grasp all the factors which drove him or her to murder? Michael Walsh, for instance, is defending great depictions of villains, but he does not interrogate the history of melodrama, and why we take its vocabulary of heroes, villains, and victims to be pure representations of real people and real events, persons and events which are beyond the ability of even the greatest geniuses to fully decode. See for instance With melodrama we enter a dream world only.

We may imagine that there is something called art for art’s sake that is purely aesthetic, beyond cavil. It is the same with the writing of history. The 60s and 70s generation was fond of studying history painting in order to point out its ideological content. But in many cases, that led them into hatred of all art as propaganda. No less than the heroes they demystified, these critics are the victims of melodrama and its myth-laden vocabulary.

As an art lover myself, I cannot join these New Leftists in their tearing down of all cultural artifacts as fatally tainted by politics and myth. I like gripping ‘art’ of all genres. Nor can I join rightists in their call to “take back the culture” (at the expense of a more accurate history, psychoanalysis, and science).
What then is the solution to the Klinghoffer fracas? I have nothing to offer but the marketplace of ideas, and suspicion of our own motives in crossing out that art, culture, or political argument that makes us squirm. We need all the insightful criticism that we can get, including criticism that takes down the elevation of value-free art and commentary. “I am not so innocent.”



  1. From Harry Lewis after reading my distinction between primitivism and modernity: “I saw the controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer last night at The Metropolitan Opera. On Monday night, I had attended the heavily Jewish demonstrations protesting the opera as “glorifying terrorism”, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel. (Approximately 1,000 people attended.) In 1991, I saw the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At that time, I thought the opera murky, tedious, confusing, turgid, and boring. I was grateful when it ended. I did not think that the opera glorified terrorism or was anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, although the “chorus of exiled Palestinians” and the terrorist characters portrayed in the opera expressed such sentiments. I also read all of the reviews both from the 1991 BAM production and the new 2014 Metropolitan Opera production. I own the CD, and have read the libretto. Full disclosure: together with composer John Adams, my cousin Alice Goodman wrote the libretto for the opera.

    The new 2014 Metropolitan Opera production was much better than the 1991 BAM production, but the Met’s fixes reveal the opera’s inherent flaws. The Met used extensive subtitles and onstage messages projected onto a screen to explain the chronology and history of the state of Israel and the 1985 terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea, in great detail. Without that supportive framework, the opera would have crashed and burned in a pile of murk as it did at BAM. As it unfolded, the external support system added clarity and context essential to the opera’s success. I’m told that weak scenes were omitted as well to add focus to the production. The staging, costuming, and choreography were brilliant and energetic. All of this elevated the opera by enabling viewers to focus on its substance, as opposed to its defects.

    My reaction to the substance was radically different from that of the protesters and the critics. The opera is dark, very dark. The subject matter permits no other conclusion. The Palestinians are enmeshed in a primitive death cult. Those protesting the opera complain that the opera “humanizes” them, but the “humanity” depicted on the Palestinian/terrorist side is enslaved in the morass of primitive Islamism, violence, murder, and death. They chant, parade green flags, invoke Allah, nurse grievances, and unite in plotting revenge and murder. They are dressed in black, and primitivism and grievance abound. The terrorists who hijack the ship are in thrall to the Ringwraiths, to the death cult. If this were Tolkien, they’d be Orcs and goblins. Much of the opera focuses on them, but this is not glorification. It is ominous foreboding, brutality, terror, horror, and finally, murder. The Islamist terrorists repeat the same phrase we heard after 9/11: “We love death more than you love life.” The smallest terrorist keeps the British dancing girl supplied with “ciggies”, dreams of his mother’s glorification of the death cult, and then murders the helpless hostage Leon Klinghoffer with a single pistol shot. He seems uncertain of his “glory” afterwards, perhaps the only “human” moment the terrorists display in the opera.

    As the projected messages are at pains to proclaim, Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish New Yorker, is on the cruise with his cancer-stricken wife to celebrate her birthday. He is crippled and wheelchair-bound, and she is dying. When the hijacking occurs, the American, British, and Israeli passengers are separated from the rest, and the death threats to the hostages begin. The terrorists abuse their hostages, battering them, threatening them, and scattering their money about, mocking their modernity, their consumerism, their materialism, and implicitly, their weakness. The Italian ship’s captain has broken out his weapons, but lays them down to avoid harm to the hostages. After hours of terror, Leon Klinghoffer struggles to his feet to defy the terrorists, strongly condemning them, but he stands alone, crippled, old, unarmed, without means to resist except for his tongue and his courage. His aria is short, and ominously, he is separated from the others. His wife sings of her love for him, of his struggles with his handicap, of his courage and determination. They are on the cruise as his loving gift to her in the midst of her own struggle with cancer. In Klinghoffer’s word, they are “human”, but their humanity is that of normal people caring for each other, supporting each other, and, confronted with death from disease and crippling disability, celebrating one another nonetheless. The contrast with the terrorists is compelling, and damning. These old, sick, crippled, and diseased American Jews are mensches, good and decent people. I teared up. After Leon is murdered out of Marilyn’s sight, the captain breaks the news to Marilyn, who sings her final, grieving aria. Her husband was a loving, supportive spouse, and so is she. The opera ends.

    The aftermath message informed us that Colonel Oliver North led a mission to track down and arrest the terrorists, who were tried and convicted in an Italian court. None of that is in the opera, but in these fraught times, it is necessary to remind ourselves that during the Reagan Administration, rough justice was done.
    As for the claims that the opera “glorifies” terrorism, promotes anti-Semitism, and is anti-Israel? Nonsense, or as a fellow opera-goer said when I asked her, “That’s crazy.” [End comment by Harry Lewis, with his permission]

    Comment by clarelspark — October 25, 2014 @ 3:14 pm | Reply

  2. As Clare knows, my cousin, Alice Goodman, wrote the libretto for this much-reviled opera. She previously had written the libretto for “Nixon in China” while at Radcliffe, where she met John Adams and Peter Sellars, who were at Harvard. After “The Death of Klinghoffer”, she parted company with Adams and Sellars over the artistic direction of “Doctor Atomic” (an opera about the development of the atomic bomb and Oppenheimer), with Sellars replacing her as the librettist. Both “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic” already had been produced on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera at Sellars’s behest, “Nixon in China” to some critical acclaim.

    Alice’s family, and mine, are reform Jews, although my father married a Protestant Christian woman. Our Jewish family took heavy casualties in the Holocaust, and most of the German Jewish branch were wiped out, with a single exception who manage to escape to Palestine on a near-derelict freighter. He fought for Israel in the 1948, 1952, 1967, and 1972 wars, attaining the rank of colonel before emigrating to the U.S. I can’t speak for Alice, but know that she is a meticulous researcher who spent three years each researching Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. In 1991, I also saw The Death of Klinghoffer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and own the CD as well as a printed copy of the libretto. I’ve read all of the critics. Four of them, the N.Y. Times (Metropolitan Opera production), the Wall Street Journal (Metropolitan Opera production), N.Y. Magazine (BAM production), and Time magazine (Walsh– BAM production) were mostly positive, although the WSJ and N.Y. Magazine critics noted “flaws” in the libretto. The negative critics are enraged about alleged “anti-Semitism” and “moral equivalence” between the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and Chorus of Exiled Jews, alleging that the opera elevates the Palestinian terrorists who murdered Leon Klinghoffer to heroic status and glorifies terrorism, and attacks on Jews in general. I didn’t see it, and don’t see it.

    In my opinion, Leon Klinghoffer is the hero of the opera, and the Palestinian terrorists are the villains. I disliked the BAM version of the opera as static, tedious, and boring, which are not moral flaws, but artistic flaws. I thought it far inferior to “Nixon in China”. The current firestorm, largely ignited by fierce conservative and orthodox Jewish protests, seems to have elevated the opera in the opinion of the NY Times and the left to a “masterpiece”. WCBS News Radio 880 in NYC pronounced the opera “the most controversial in the history of the Metropolitan Opera”, quite an accolade. Lincoln Center was completely locked down on opening night, with Alan Deshowitz, a ticket-holder who strongly condemned the opera, complaining that as a ticket-holder he wasn’t permitted to get anywhere close to the protesters. (Does this seem an odd complaint to anyone else?)

    I myself attended the protests, which featured opportunistic politicians of all stripes up for election (including liberal Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Eliot Engel, as well as Rudy Giuliani) rising to damn the opera. Giuliani’s argument was that the opera “contributes to” terrorism, because it presents an erroneous world view. As mayor of NYC during the 1990s, Giuliani learned that the PLO, KGB, Saddam Husein’s Iraq, and perhaps Gaddafi had conspired to orchestrate the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. By omitting this history, the opera, Giuliani argued, distorted history. How Alice could have known about all of these conspiracies in 1989-1991 remains an open question. I know that Alice is not an anti-Semite, or an admirer of terrorism. I do think that Adams and Sellars are liberal, and perhaps even leftists. I don’t discount the possibility that their views influenced the “artistic direction” of the opera.

    Comment by Harrry Lewis — October 22, 2014 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  3. The antisemitic theatre piece “Death of Klinghoffer”, complete with “wagnerian” soundtrack, is defended by the Marxist Mayor of NYC Bill De Blasio, who attacks Rudy Giuliani for condemning it and leading a demonstration against it. Rudy Giuliani, besides being the Former Mayor of New York City, was also the Prosecutor in the case of the highjacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the assassination of Leon Klinghoffer, ztuq”l, Hi”d, a 69 year old wheelchair-bound paraplegic Jew. Giuliani, who is VERY WELL ACQUAINTED with the case, in 1995 had an ARREST WARRANT out against Yasser AraBfaRt, sr”y, who was in fact unable to attend a Met opera in 1995, because of the arrest warrant, which sent the extreme left and the Clinto Administration bezerk. The “clintonites” and the extreme left never forgave him for that: they were all into appeasing the murderous Egyptian pedophile with pubic hair in his face.

    It should be noted that Giuliani was actually the one who fought for and allowed, as Mayor of the City of New York, the Mapplethorpe exhibit, in spite of it being very disgusting and insulting to a large chunk of New Yorkers, Giuliani included, who are Catholic: crucifixes in urine and madonnas in excrement. Yet, being a Judge, Giuliani knows the difference between freedom of expression, which is covered by the First Amendment, and incitement to commit a crime or support for terrorism.

    However, if we accept the IMMORAL Latin principle of “datur venia poetis” and the idea that everything is acceptable as art (admitting that for some it might be considered art, but not conceding that it is…), we enter the slippery slope of ethical relativism, which preempts to define as evil in absolute terms, but makes its determination on the basis of majorities or places, which in turn brings – when we go to the end of the matter – to be unable to condemn even Nazism, because – if all depends on some relative standard and not on absolutes – what determines right or wrong becomes then the will of the majority, “democracy”, as it was the case in Germany, where the will and votes of the overwhelming majority of Germans brought and kept Nazism in power; and such reasoning would also bring us to consider “art” such garbage as Leni Riefenstahl “The Triumph of the Will”, Albert Speer monuments to Nazism, “The Jew Suss” by Veit Harlan or “The Eternal Jew” (Die Ewige Jude) by Goebbels, which were NOT art but garbage, just as most of the Soviet “artistic” endeavours glorifying a murderous and liberty-suppressing regime, its leaders and its achievements

    Comment by HaDaR — October 21, 2014 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

    • You haven’t engaged the major thrust of my essay, which was melodrama as the vocabulary from which only a few of us ever escape.

      Comment by clarelspark — October 21, 2014 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

      • I tend to be very sensitive in “smelling” propaganda from far away… 😉 …so, I am not entirely sure that I would qualify such garbage as “melodrama”… However, just as tragedy was, melodrama is certainly very powerful in conveying ideas through leverage on the spectator’s emotions… Not by chance the Greeks and the Romans, masters in mass manipulation, used theatre a lot and developed it to incredible levels of refinement and subtlety… However, the choice of WHAT and WHOM one tries to elicit sympathy and empathy for (i.e.: the predator or his victim) is determinant…certainly in this case… But not only… Otherwise, why not consider “victims” also the hooded klansmen burning people in churches and lynching negroes, since the Confederates has suffered a major defeat in the Civil War and the end of a whole system of living and the theft of their wheat and cotton because of the blacks, which was the official reason-excuse for the Union declaring war on them?…

        Comment by HaDaR — October 22, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

      • It is the role and responsibility of the critic and the public to determine the ideological content of works of “art.” I wasn’t talking about history or science which cannot be accurately represented in so weak a reed as “art.” When we see history as a spectacle (including our own personal histories) we yield to a dream world. That was my thesis in my blog on melodrama. As for the Klansmen, they did view themselves as blameless victims. I suppose the Palestinians feel the same. The challenge for intellectuals is to restore real history, which is not always easy to do, given the opacity of governments.

        Comment by clarelspark — October 22, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

  4. Let ten thousand flowers bloom. Well stated, and agreed on all points, especially the reality that all art of any genre is ideological on at least one level, and that no artist can escape it. But why do we think we can rise above that? Isn’t all art of any genre (and all criticism) implied or outright evaluation which necessarily comes out of ideology? The best we can do is be honest about it, no?

    Comment by Terbreugghen — October 21, 2014 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

  5. Bill De Blasio is actually an avowed Marxist… He used to work for Sandinista organizations, among others…

    Comment by HaDaR — October 21, 2014 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

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