On October 7th 1985 four members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt. The 69-year-old American Leon Klinghoffer, a retired businessman confined to a wheelchair, was murdered in cold blood by the hijackers and thrown overboard.
This dreadful event demands and repays our understanding, but we need to know what it is we have to understand. One way is through art. Because art. like life, is complex. And opera is the most complex art of all.
The English National Opera's production of The Death of Klinghoffer, composed by John Addams with a libretto by Alice Goodman, attracted fierce protests when it opened in New York earlier this week. On the first night around 400 demonstrators gathered outside the Metropolitan Opera House calling for the production's cancellation. Inside, hecklers twice interrupted the performance before being escorted from the auditorium by ushers. This was widely reported, but less coverage was given to the hate-mail received during rehearsals by members of the cast and crew, a mild but representative example of which, forwarded to me by a friend in the production team, came from somebody called Paul Stern:
I think you and your clients will be culpable if another attack happens in New York. I lost someone very special to me on 9/11 and I don't appreciate people coming here from Sri Lanca [sic] and Wales and all kinds of places and using our cultural institutions to foster terrorist attacks against Manhattan. The whole group of you are no better than Osama Bin-Laden, hiding away, encouraging other [sic] to attack.
Is it worth explaining to Mr. Stern that no member of the production came from Wales or Sri Lanka or even Sri Lanca? Mneh. He is unlikely to be won over by reason or evidence as his mind, if that's what it os, has been made up. At least his message didn't culminate in a death threat, but such threats were made to the Met's director Peter Gelb, and must have been disconcerting, to say the least.
I happened to attend the first night of the London production in 2012 and, arriving early in St Martin's Lane, chatted for a few minutes to the solitary protestor, a quietly amiable chap who rather self-consciously held up a neat placard saying (if I remember correctly) "The murder of Leon Klinghoffer was a crime. Enjoy your evening at the opera."
He admitted that he hadn't seen or heard the opera, but didn't think that disqualified him from taking a stand against it. I found it hard to disagree with him. Or, rather, I didn't see his position as wholly hypocritical, and he was so serenely reasonable that argument seemed somehow inappropriate. His presence was almost self-effacing - he just stood there, occasionally being photographed. The performance that evening went smoothly and without interruption and the composer took a curtain call to tremendous applause. I wasn't alone in feeling slightly let down by the lack of protest but on reflection am forced to suppose that those who, for whatever reason, opposed the production realised that protesting would be counter-productive and make them, and their cause, look silly.
In New York things were more heated. In June this year Peter Gelb announced that, following discussions with the Anti-Defamation League, the planned Live in HD transmission would be cancelled, denying a chance for larger audiences to see the opera and judge for themselves.
The former Mayor of New York, Rudolf Guiliani, wanted to establish his musical credentials before shooting himself in the foot:
"As an opera fan of some 57 years, I find the opera and view the music as a significant achievement. I own a CD, have heard it, and have read the libretto three or four times […] 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."
With a clumsy volte-face he then added, "the opera is factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine, and of terrorism in general."
But opera is never factually accurate because it makes no claims to being documentary. Is it worth adding that it is because of this great opera that the terrible death of Leon Klinghoffer and the awful experience of his fellow passengers and the Achille Lauro crew, the general public might by now entirely have forgotten about the whole damn thing?