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Controversy gets another hearing

Special to The Times

It was a sign of the national nervousness after the July subway bombings here that the audience for the long-delayed British stage premiere of John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” was forewarned not to be alarmed by the sight of armed terrorists running through the auditorium: They were only acting.

That tip-off punctured the surprise at last week’s opening night at the Edinburgh International Festival, but in the era of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, caution rules. And if there’s one work of art that caution has ruled with a heavy hand, it is this controversial opera about the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists.

Since its first performances in 1991, “Klinghoffer” has become probably the world’s most famous ghost opera -- much talked about but never seen.

Productions worldwide have been shelved or canceled on the grounds of political sensitivity, often after pressure from Jewish groups that have denounced the opera as anti-Semitic and argued that the chief victim of the hijacking -- the wheelchair-bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer, who was shot and thrown overboard -- is portrayed with less sympathy than his killers.

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With even more-moderate critics worried that the opera romanticizes the thuggery of terrorism, the chorus of disapproval grew so loud that even the opera houses that co-commissioned the work had second thoughts. Los Angeles washed its hands of the show, as did the English company Glyndebourne, allegedly after it was made clear that any production would guarantee the withdrawal of future funding from wealthy Jewish patrons.

All of which explains why, after 14 years of waiting, the British premiere generated much heat (and apprehension) on both sides of the Atlantic. What stage director Anthony Neilson called a “rapid-response unit” of protest groups convened to try to kill the show. From Los Angeles, a spokesman for the Simon Wiesenthal Center demanded an audience boycott so that the “moral midgets” responsible for “Klinghoffer” would find themselves playing to empty houses. And the Edinburgh Festival itself was on alert to the possibility that last Tuesday’s opening, which happened to coincide with the much-publicized removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, would be picketed and/or disrupted.

In the event, nothing happened -- although ticket sales were lower than expected, perhaps because of general wariness of the subject matter rather than in response to the Wiesenthal campaign. And although critical responses to the staging were mixed -- the Financial Times declared it “a triumph,” the Daily Telegraph pronounced it “dreary” -- there was general agreement that the opera itself is a profound and powerful work that, in the words of the London Times, “doesn’t justify the shrieking.”

In the run-up to the opening, as pro- and anti-"Klinghoffer” factions were gathering, Neilson (a distinguished Scottish playwright who had never before staged an opera) was adamant that “no reasonable-minded person is going to have a problem with this piece.” He added that “I want to keep the politics out of it as far as possible and just let what John Adams and [librettist] Alice Goodman said at the time of the original conception come through.”

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Not many of the British critics saw his efforts in those terms, however, and the general feeling was that he overloaded what is actually a semi-abstract piece with documentary detail. “Klinghoffer” is almost more an oratorio than an opera: It moves slowly and contemplatively through serene, reflective choruses that comment on the events surrounding the hijacking rather than portraying them literally. Even the death that gives the piece its title happens offstage. And the intention of the authors, clearly, is to see the hijacking in the broader context of a long, historic cycle of violence through which victims and aggressors periodically swap roles.

By contrast, Neilson’s staging (the last of four performances took place Monday) filled the house with literal imagery, from the sound of seagulls to the sight of shuffling refugees with suitcases -- with the result that, as the Times said, “every time the work threatens to transcend its subject ... Neilson brings it thumping back to earth, to the particular.”

The Guardian found the literalism of the staging “strident,” with an “air of desperation” to it. And no one liked the home movie of Klinghoffer’s golden wedding that had presumably been thrown in to emphasize the victim’s humanity. For the Independent, this was just another example of the way Neilson had “tried all the tricks in the book to bring the story to life.”

Humanity is nonetheless one of the big issues with “Klinghoffer,” and the precise degree to which the characters possess it, terrorists included, has been the root of its problems. Why, demands the Jewish lobby, is Klinghoffer shown warts and all as a tetchy old man, while the hijackers are allowed moments of lyric beauty? Why are the demarcation lines not clearly drawn between good and bad, black and white? The answer from librettist Goodman (who was born a Jew although she is now a Church of England curate in the British Midlands town of Kidderminster) is that “Klinghoffer” would be a lesser piece in monochrome. “The important thing for me,” she has said, “was to make everyone human. That doesn’t mean abdicating moral responsibility or even abdicating judgment, but it did mean not putting a finger on the scales.”

This attempt at evenhandedness has left Goodman friendless on all sides. The anti-"Klinghoffer” contingent regards her as pro-Palestinian, but the Palestinians themselves don’t see it -- which is why a film version of “Klinghoffer” made for British television was banned from last year’s Ramallah Film Festival in the West Bank.

But as the Financial Times concluded in its review of the Edinburgh production, the success of “Klinghoffer” ultimately has nothing to do with winning or losing political positions. It has to do with whether the piece amounts to phony or convincing theater -- whether it relies on notoriety and exploits “a contemporary controversy to serve [the authors’] liberal agenda” or stands on its own as a work of integrity and stature.

Along with almost every other British newspaper, the FT found for the integrity-and-stature side, congratulating the Edinburgh Festival for its courage in presenting such a rich but difficult piece at such a raw and sensitive moment in the country’s modern history. “After all the controversy and obfuscation,” it said, “Klinghoffer” “finally illuminates and persuades.” And to those who have spent the last 14 years trying to suppress the opera, a Times columnist pointed out that “far from giving comfort to terrorists, ‘Klinghoffer’ sends a signal that Britain won’t be bombed into renouncing its tolerance of different viewpoints.”


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