The Death of Klinghoffer, the Peter Sellars-John Adams-Alice Goodman-Mark Morris operatic collaboration about the killing of a wheelchair-bound American Jew by Arab terrorists during the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, has just been shown several times at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It is now on its way to audiences in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Here in the New York Metropolitan Area, the production was a resounding dud, lukewarmly received by audiences and excoriated in the press. In itself the press reaction was interesting, for the opera was rejected not just by Edward Rothstein, the new music critic of The New York Times, but by writers in the yuppie-conscious purlieus of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, and New York magazine. Each writer hated some aspects of Klinghoffer more than others, but by the time the press was through, every part of the opera—production, music, libretto, and choreography—had been described, and found wanting.
What lay at the heart of The Death of Klinghoffer, of course, was not the postmodern, minimalist art for which the collaborators are known, but the politics which brought the opera into being in the first place. The subject of the work was not the murder of a cripple by young thugs, but the state of Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East, and, by extension, in the United States as well. Leon Klinghoffer was an innocent American Jewish tourist who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; he was killed by Arabs bent on revenging the wrongs done their people. The opera was evenhanded in the sense that Arabs and Jews received roughly equal time; it was hardly evenhanded in the way the Arabs spent their time talking about the destruction of their homes by the Israelis, and the Jews spent theirs talking about the souvenirs they bought on their trips and, in the case of Klinghoffer’s widow, about bodily aches and pains.
The artistic verdict on Klinghoffer was clear.
The artistic verdict on Klinghoffer was clear; what is not so clear is just why an opera of such minimal aesthetic qualifications should have been quite so eagerly awaited by opera lovers and followers of the contemporary avant-garde. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the fact that those responsible for Klinghoffer thought that by pushing all the right politically correct buttons about the Middle East, consumerism, and American hegemony, their art could hardly fail. On this reasoning, politics (as Henry Kissinger once said about power in its relation to sex) could be the greatest aphrodisiac for art. With such a subject, treated in such a way, who could fail to make a significant opera?
There is no doubt that opera today is in trouble, and that viable new works would find a warm welcome. But opera is art, not politics, and a failed music, allied to a failed production, a failed libretto, and a failed choreography, can take no wings from a politically correct ideology. And so in the end, all the separate artistic failures of Klinghoffer, despite the glamour of their political provenance, made for a total failure. We have always known that art cannot validate politics; the lesson of this latest attempt at making it big in contemporary opera is that politics cannot validate art. Art, like sex, is doubtless better without aphrodisiacs.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 3, on page 2
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