Political Theater


Arts & Culture

The Death of Klinghoffer and grand opera’s political tradition.


The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Opera is the most pretentious art form of all time, which makes it an easy target for the Marx Brothers and for Bugs Bunny—but its pretension makes it explosive. And—surprise—even in the wake of the death of City Opera and the Met’s labor disputes, it is explosive in America, where a revival of an American opera about the death of an American against the backdrop of international geopolitics has become a scandal or a sensation, depending on who you talk to. (Whether it’s selling tickets, only Peter Gelb can tell us.)

No recent film or album or musical has caused the kind of agony that John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer has; outside the Met, hundreds of protesters have accused it of anti-Semitism. Its reception makes any real appraisal of its virtues or weaknesses impossible—the same fate that befell, say, Parsifal, Birth of a Nation, Guernica, and Cradle Will Rock, in their times.

Why has Klinghoffer faced such intense hostility? An English friend recently said to me, with enormous authority and disdain, You have no tradition of political theater in America. That statement is absurd, but the following is true: England has Shakespeare’s histories, continental Europe has opera, and America has … Shakespeare’s histories and Europe’s operas. I should note that I ran this by an extremely knowledgeable friend last night, who was distraught at this simplification; We did have a tradition, he said, And it was systematically eradicated and watered down by McCarthyism, and many of us have worked very, very hard to bring it back! He’s right, of course. That said, we do not have an ongoing, unbroken, native, above-ground tradition of accepted political theater. We have musicals, yes, but the musical has never had the direct connection to political power and patronage that the London stage, the Paris Opera, and Bayreuth do. And so we tend to be both overawed by and suspicious of these forms. They have a special status, but their political content is not ours.

Since it’s not ours, we may not understand how inextricably bound the art and the politics are. Carl Dahlhaus’s magisterial book Nineteenth-Century Music turns the usual narrative of classical music—its inevitable march toward atonality and modernism—on its head. Music, he says, was an instrument and an expression of political power, inextricably bound up in economic, class, and religious transformations, and above all in the rise of nationalism. In his panorama, chamber music, the symphony, and solo music fall away, leaving a century of choral music, operetta, and, at the dead center, opera.

And opera, grand opera, featured a parade of violent religious wars, exiled slaves, and nationalist hysteria. Operas were both an engine and a critique of imperialism. Think of Verdi and his first big hit, Nabucco, with its chorus of Hebrew exiles—“Va, pensiero”—that became the de facto anthem of Italian nationalism; or Aida, with its Nubian slave love and her father’s desire for armed revolt against their oppressors; or even Macbeth, which gained a chorus of Scottish exiles lamenting their occupied land. Think of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, in which bloodthirsty Catholic priests sing a grotesque travesty of a hymn as they plan the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre; or Auber’s La Muette de Portici, whose story of Italians under Austrian occupation supposedly caused the Belgian revolution. Even innocent Rossini wrote William Tell, about the conflict of love and honor in Austrian-occupied Switzerland. Think of Mendelssohn’s two oratorios, one Christian and one Jewish, as if to identify the religious confusion of his own family of converts. Think of Wagner.

The form’s origins are in the reforms of Gluck (radical simplification, clarity of diction), the breakthrough of Mozart (who wrote music that was esoteric yet popular, and created a stylized world filled with people who seem alive), and the massive festival cantatas of the French Revolution and the rediscovery of Bach’s passions. With this came the transformation of opera from an exclusively aristocratic form with stories from the ancient world to a bourgeois and even populist one, with stories about everyday people and modern (or, at least, early modern) historical and political events; thus the scandal of operas like La Traviata—ripped, as it were, from the headlines. Verdi had originally set the opera in the present day, but censors made him change that. Over and over, these works present fictionalized people in real historical contexts, trapped in the machinery of actual geopolitics. This naturalism was new and shocking.

It still is. Amazingly, Klinghoffer has all the same nineteenth-century tropes: the choruses of exiles; the eclectic score, sometimes exotic and sometimes pastiche; the nationalist and religious hysteria; the apparent conflict between bourgeois tragedy and historical imperatives; and the debate about the ethics of blending documentary and fiction. Its defenders will cite the gorgeous choral writing, the inventive use of Adams’s trademark orchestral minimalism to provide momentum and continuity, the frequently beautiful arias, and the even tone of the strange libretto, which refuses to clarify its politics. Its detractors will cite the libretto’s refusal to clarify its politics, a few oddly inserted arias, and the fact that the piece plays more like an oratorio than an opera.

The work coolly refuses to take sides, which may seem admirable, and Adams himself has said that the piece is modeled on Bach’s Passions. But imagine the “St. Matthew Passion” untethered from piety. For that matter, imagine Nabucco without the clear sympathy for the Jewish exiles, or Parsifal without Parsifal. Which may be to say that what’s missing is—dare I say?—vulgarity.

Beyond the obvious parallels with Bach, and between the choruses of Palestinian and Jewish exiles and “Va, pensiero,” another opera lurks in the background here, also on the subject of the question of Zion: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. (And look! Even in this forbidding score, Schoenberg makes a concession to showbiz vulgarity with a sexy ballet.) Schoenberg’s feelings about Israel were clear, but he’s unable, in the opera, to reconcile the conflict between faith and government, or one could say between music and the word, represented by the two brothers. At least in his case, the reason is clear: he never finished act three of his magnum opus.

Grand opera is, and has been, at war with itself: populist but aristocratic, revolutionary but reactionary, imperialist but critical of imperialism. These are total, inviolable, integrated artworks that are also showbiz whores—they’ll do anything for a good curtain. And the music! Banal, sublime, bombastic, exotic, phantasmagoric, with folk songs and hymns, historic pastiches and the music of the future. This is a form arguably defined by its lack of integrity: Why is an opera not just a play or just music? Why all this melodrama? Why the tacky sets and sexy dances? And why the audiences who are so upset but who can seldom be bothered to actually watch?

Michael Friedman is a composer and lyricist in New York City.