I have just found out about the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to cancel the simulcast of Tom Morris’s important production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer due to be broadcast in November this year. I felt I wanted to express my feelings to you as a singer and a British Israeli about the tragedy of this decision, and highlight again the importance of what we do as artists and commentators on the human condition.
For those of you who don’t know, The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera depicting the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists which resulted in an international incident and the tragic death of one of the passengers, Leon Klinghoffer. It has been plagued with protest since its first performance, mostly from Jewish groups.
In my opinion the controversy about this piece shows exactly why it should be performed and broadcast. It forces debate, brings out buried feelings and makes us examine ourselves as individuals, as artists, as members of the human family. I myself have an intimate history with Death of Klinghoffer. I am a British born Jewish man, with an Israeli mother, a Grandfather who escaped the Holocaust and Grandmother whose family fled Yemen. My mother was in the Israeli army as all young Israelis are, and I spent every summer of my childhood in Tel Aviv. My politics are liberal but tempered with realism, knowing what life is like on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians alike, with an understanding that both sides have blood on their hands, both sides are traumatised and both sides are hampered by entrenched leaderships, religious extremism and wider geopolitical questions. I have worked closely with Palestinians and Israelis alike looking for solutions in various cultural programmes and alongside that I am a qualified trauma therapist, able to understand and work with the demons that arise for people when they are triggered.
I am also an operatic tenor. In 2005 I had the privilege of performing in the Scottish Opera / Edinburgh Festival production of Death of Klinghoffer playing Molqi, the leader of the PLO group in the opera. It was not a comfortable role for me to play. This production was also controversial and raised all the same questions from all the same people. My mother refused to come to the performances and I battled with profound questions about identity, loyalty and nationalism. It changed me, strangely not by making me more pro Palestinian, but actually balancing me out. In some ways I moved more in the other direction and became more balanced towards Israel.
I heard all the same rhetoric that I’m hearing today from people who have never seen or heard the piece and who don’t want to engage with the wider issues the opera presents. This is more than just a show about the Arab Israeli conflict, it is about the human condition, it is about what is happening today in Syria and Iraq, in Ukraine and Nigeria. It is about the demonisation of the other and what it does to us all on a personal and collective level. And it is about complexity.
We are a complex species. One of my colleagues was an Egyptian living in New York – you may have been surprised about the debates and conversations we had…me defending the Palestinians, him defending Israel.
As the Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors I believe we as a people should stop using it as an excuse to censor and persecute others. As the son of an Israeli I believe there have to be other ways to find peace. And as an artist, dedicated to the free expression of ideas and service to humanity I believe that this opera and others like it is why we sing. I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of the questions it raises, but I do believe that Death of Klinghoffer allows us space to debate and a voice to all.
Please don’t censor it.