Mindfulness or Mindlessness in the world of opera

The New York Metropolitan Opera has cancelled the worldwide cinema broadcast of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, after representations by the Anti-Defamation League (1). The Met spokesperson both insisted that he did not believe the opera was anti-Semitic, but said that he was now persuaded that to broadcast the opera to cinemas across the world would be to risk fanning the flames of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.

The opera’s offence is not that it could promote anti-Semitism: it is that it challenges the myths that surround the origins of the State of Israel. It is not that the opera supports the Palestinians: it is that it extends its sympathy – and elicits our sympathy – equally to both the Palestinian and Israeli people. Those identified with Israel feel threatened by a work of art which forces audiences at an emotional level to acknowledge that the Palestinians exist, that they, too, bleed, just like us. Klinghoffer is ‘pro-Palestinian’ in the sense that simply to acknowledge the Nakba is to undermine Israel’s attempts to persuade the West that it is the victim in its confrontation with the Palestinian people.

What has this to do with mental health? Well, yet another example of the failure of Western institutions to resist the arm-twisting of the Zionist lobby does something to my own peace of mind. And if I am angry that attempts to stifle artistic freedom to protect the Israeli State succeed, then imagine how it might impact on those communities who paid, and continue to pay, the price of dispossession and occupation, and whose civil rights have been suppressed now for two generations? If the Met were really concerned about inflaming opinion it would value the opera’s capacity to engender a mature, engaged reflection on the historical experiences of both Israelis and Palestinians, the essential background to understanding the tragedy of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, and behind that of the apparently irresolvable problem that is Palestine/Israel.

That this understanding is what the ADL seeks at all costs to prevent is evident from the statement attributed to the daughters of Klinghoffer:

“’The Death of Klinghoffer’ perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it,” Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer said in the ADL statement. “The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” (2)

The opera does not romanticize or legitimize what happened on the Achille Lauro, but it does help us think, feelingly. And this is what is ‘dangerous’ – to turn a ‘coldblooded terrorist’ into a person bound up in a tragic and unresolved injustice not of his making, from which perspective his actions make sense.

Central to conceptions of psychological maturity in our disciplines is the recognition that an awareness of, and concern for, the subjectivity of people other than ourselves is a profound developmental achievement. And one, moreover, that is always vulnerable – it can be destroyed by psychotic illness, undermined by stress and compromised by societal ruptures and sectarian ideologies. The Death of Klinghoffer is ‘controversial’ within Western societies precisely because it cuts through the silences, the disavowals, the bias, the fear – everything which enables us to dehumanise the Palestinians – and simply insists that the historical experience of the dispossessed also needs to be taken into account. In this sense, the opera stands out not in the originality of its treatment of the conflict in Palestine/Israel, but as a work that is counter-cultural, simply by offering a Palestinian perspective. It challenges and exposes the extent of our ‘illness’, the severity of which is now confirmed by the Met’s decision.

Martin Kemp

1. See http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/jun/18/the-death-of-klinghoffer-if-john-adams-opera-isnt-anti-semitic-how-can-it-fan-anti-semitism; http://mondoweiss.net/2014/06/palestinians-broadcast-semitism.html

2. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.599478