Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Neither anti-Semitic nor pro-Palestinian


This opera by John Adams has become mythic because it is one piece of genial invention and creation based on a real global political event but also because some Jewish organizations accused it to be anti-Semitic, as John Adams told David Beverly, October 25, 1995:

“Well, it for sure didn’t strike some people as neutral. You know The Death of Klinghoffer was picketed by the Jewish Information League when it was done in San Francisco and I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the reviews that came out like the one in the Wall Street Journal.”

I won’t go further and I won’t even discuss John Adams’s assertion then that it was neutral on the antagonism between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Twenty years later it does not seem to be that neutral but it does not seem to be anti-Semitic either, nor very pro-Palestinian. The question is very hot today and we cannot be neutral on the subject and I would say that the presentation of the conflict is rather balanced though leaning rather towards the Palestinian side without really being anti-Semitic not pro-Palestinian. The remarks I am going to make are explaining that seemingly ambiguous position, though I could accept the fact that other people might see things differently.

Let’s look at the Prologue and at the various Choruses. The Prologue is composed of two choruses: “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of Exiled Jews.” Then the “Ocean Chorus” at the end of Act I Scene 1; the “Night Chorus” at the end of Act I Scene 2; the “Hagar Chorus” at the beginning of Act II; the “Desert Chorus” at the end of Act II Scene 1; the “Day Chorus” at the end of  Act II Scene 2. Note the absence of a chorus at the end of the opera (Act II Scene 3).

Many people say these choruses go by pairs: the first two, then the crossed pairs of ocean-desert and night-day. With the “Hagar Chorus” at the center of these latter four choruses. We can also notice that they are antagonistic pairs, except the “Hagar Chorus” that does not have his doppelganger. But this is only on the surface.

The first chorus is about the forced exile of Palestinians who are expelled from Palestine, or part of Palestine by Israelis, in fact only Jews at that moment, arriving to what was to become Israel. Palestinians had a home and a motherland and they were expelled, made refugees by the new arrivals. On the other hand Jews arriving from Europe had just been deprived of a lot during the previous ten or fifteen years and they took possession of what was not theirs in the name of Zion and the fact that they would be the descendants of this Zion. In other words the land they had been forced to leave at the beginning of the Christian Era by the Romans after various riots after the death of James, the brother of Jesus, in 62 BCE and then later on at the beginning of the second century, riots which led to the destruction of the temple first and then later on the destruction of the walls of the city of Jerusalem and the banishment of all Jews, this land is considered by them as theirs. For nineteen centuries the land which was theirs up to their banishment would have been kept and taken care of by the non-Jews who were not banished but who had been the servants and the serfs and even the slaves of the Jews before. So the Jews after the Second World War arrived with little, grabbed the land and prospered. The antagonism is historical, global and very old. It is just reenacted by the Zionist decision to call the Jews back “home.”

But they are brothers, these Israelis and these Palestinians who speak various Semitic languages. True enough, but they are brothers like with Abraham’s two sons, one from his Jewish wife and the other from his Arab slave, or servant if you prefer. But she is banished with her new born and she nearly dies of thirst, and her son too, in the desert. This version of Hagar’s banishment by Abraham makes the whole opera lean towards the Palestinians, as if being banished by the Jews happened after WWII a second time in history, and what’s more the first time happened in Biblical scriptures. And this duality was God’s decision:

“Of this child too I will make a nation.”

And this banishment was a manumission. Hagar was liberated with her son with the only fate of dying in the desert, probably to prevent God’s decision to become a reality. But there is always an angel when it is needed by all mythologies, and there was one here too with Ishmael, like there was one with Isaac. That’s where I say John Adams is not neutral at all since he states the conflict and competition and hostility between the two peoples God himself decided to establish is of divine nature and very old, and the two peoples are not equal, or as equal as Abel and Cain in God’s eyes. Then we are justified in wondering if the composer leans to one side.

And he does.

Ishmael does not have his doppelganger Isaac in the opera. Palestinians were banished twice by Jews, in the prologue and at the beginning of the second act. Obviously Jews were not banished from the Levant by Palestinians but by Romans and Roman Legions. We could wonder if we could consider the Final Solution, or Shoah, as a second banishment concluding a twenty century long segregation and even cyclical partial extermination. But Palestinians are in no way responsible for that. The opera clearly states in these choruses that the Palestinian lot is not at all symmetrical to the Jewish lot. The scales tip to one side quite obviously.

The next question to ask is now concerned by the present time situation. And that is another story.

The “Ocean Chorus” brings the tale back to the primeval expanse of water under eternal night from which Adam and Eve are going to be brought up by God himself. The origin is unique and the same for everyone. Told like that the rivalry between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac is not explained, is unexplainable.

The “Night Chorus that follows is a movement back to that distant past but this time after the two peoples had parted because we are in the days of 1 Kings, a long time after Abraham and on the Jewish side, and the opera brings there more or less under the belief of Jews (which sounds strange) a trinity that is very suspiscious.

“Elijah will return, the Jews believe, the Antichrist condemn, the Messiah judge; . . .”

We can note the chronology of the three characters: Elijah, Antichrist, Messiah. How can the Antichrist come before Christ himself who is the Messiah, though we could consider the Messiah is the Jewish Messiah and not Jesus Christ, but then who is the Antichrist? The trinity is suspicious too because it is Christian and not Jewish. Then comes the Last Judgment, Judgment Day, Doomsday which is in our mind more connected with John’s Book of Revelation, than with the Old Testament (in spite of Ezekiel and Isaiah). At this moment in the opera we are in the night for sure because all references to Judaism and to Christianity get mixed and bringing that debate into the picture is leading to the conclusion of this chorus: salvation for any one after the end of this world is going to be arbitrary and God’s decision only. And that leads to another trinity that is frightening in itself:

“I am afraid for myself, for myself, for myself”

The trinity of fear has little to do with Judaism since a Jew accepts God’s decisions no matter what they may be, a Muslim accepts in the same way God’s decision though one can hasten this decision by fighting for God’s glory and dying for God, but a Christian does not have any trinity of fear because they believe they will be judged on what they have done in life, and only on that. What’s more it does not fit the Christian vision to individualize that much the future after death and after Doomsday: the congregation, the ekklesia of the fauthful. At this moment I consider the opera has lost its references to the ethnic, religious and historical situation we are dealing with. All the more because after this chorus and after the intermission the second act is going to start with the “Hagar Chorus” that brings us to the initial banishment of the Palestinians, or Arabs as they were called at the time, by the Jews. I must say the final declaration of Hagar is particularly powerful:

“My son will die as a free man on his own land.”

She is manumitted but the land is her own and she wants to die on that land of hers.

The next chorus, the “Desert Chorus,” amplifies the desert in which Hagar and her son were bound to die if the angel had not intervened. In this chorus the desert itself structures and formats life, thinking and behavior.

“Is not their desert the garden of the Lord?
. . . The hunters shall go hungry tonight . . .
As if it [the earth, or even stars-moon-sky-earth] had turned itself away from the world
To leap like a fountain in the mind of God.”

The desert is everything and the fountain in the mind of God becomes the dream, the expectation, the promise to find one day in that desert the Persian rose, yellow and red, the rose from Iran, a Shia Muslim country for sure (though Shia is the minority reference in Islam as opposed to Sunni) but from another culture since they speak an Indo-European language and not a Semitic language. Once again here the vision is that of Islam but with mixed references and we must keep in mind the Palestinians have three religions, Shia and Sunni Islam and Christianity (as a generic reference to various affiliations). The Jewish religion has only been brought back there over the last century.

And we come to the “Day Chorus” that brings the ship and her passengers back to Egypt. It is the most confused and maelstrom-like vision of a country that is well taken care of and cultivated but yet a woman was there and she was wearing a dark veil and then she was pushed underground and there with a voice coming from deep in the ground “broken cement and sand slide into the hole” and it is going to drown this underground voice coming from that woman they like and have banned underground. Once again we see here the fate of those who are pushed away or under by the Israelis who are cultivating the land.

When you see these choruses in a sequential approach, you then can consider the real story of what the real event is. The real event is the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. The events and even the words of the Captain or his mate are directly taken from the Memoir the Captain of the ship actually wrote after the event and John Adams said in 1995 in the above-quoted interview that they had a photocopy of that Memoir available all the time in some kind of English translation:

“David Beverly: Do you know if Alice Goodman used Gerardo De Rosa’s . . .
John Adams: Memoirs? Absolutely. Is that book available now?
David Beverly: In Italian.
John Adams: No, there is somebody who did an English version of it because I remember having that while I was composing. Somebody had translated it and we had a Xeroxed typescript of it. Now I don’t know if it ever got published or not, but that whole Captain’s monologue [from the opening of Act I, scene 1.] is largely taken from his memoirs. It’s amazing how Alice took his words and then put it into beautiful poetry.

This hijacking is a political action with military force that we call today a terrorist act. The political motivations of such acts do not change the qualification of the act. The Palestinians appear to be “cool” at the beginning but very fast things change when they start sorting out the passengers and extracting Americans, British citizens and Jews. They want some kind of political benefit from this action that has to be negotiated with Syria and the second in Command of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas (the present Chairman of the PLO), but this fails and they understand very fast that killing the passengers one by one every fifteen minutes will not make anyone move. So they come back to Egypt, disembark and disappear leaving the passengers and the crew behind. They had killed one Jewish man, a crippled person who was in a wheel chair and the opera closes on a long lamentation of his wife. And those concluding words are sinister in meaning particularly applied to humanity:

“Suffering is certain.
The remembered man
Rising from my heart
Into the world to come,
It is he whom
The Lord will redeem
When I am dead.
I should have died.
If a hundred
People were murdered
And their blood
Flowed in the wake
Of this ship like
Oil, only then
Would the world intervene.
They should have killed me.
I wanted to die.
I wanted to die.”

We note the husband will not be redeemed as long as his wife is not dead. That’s a Jewish superstition I guess. And out of love for him his wife wants to be dead but she cannot kill herself and she regrets she has not been killed like him. And the world can only be moved if the blood poured in the ocean becomes oil. Oil is the only incentive resource that will make the world react to anything. This is of course not gratuitous and it is political.

So I think all elements show the opera is balanced but not neutral. It is in fact extremely pessimistic about Palestine in particular but also about humanity in general. But the Biblical roots of the problem make this problem unsolvable. Thus the opera is pessimistic about the future of humanity, if humanity has a future, and that’s probably why it was so successful, so influential even. Over the last thirty years or so, maybe some more, definitely since the first oil crisis of 1973 the Middle East has become the geopolitical center of practically all serious problems, especially after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In the West there is a morbid fascination for unsolvable problems provided they remain limited in space. As for time it does not matter. The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted 30 years or so and very few people cared till Sri Lanka was discovered as being the perfect hub for maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean by China.

The West is always speaking of human rights of course, but in the rest of the world of course, because the fact that young black males are shot dead, armed or unarmed, week after week, by white cops, or at times black cops in the US is not a human right problem. The song has changed a little bit after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but has the music changed at all? It still has the sound of bullets being shot.

Speaking of music this opera is fascinating. John Adams is becoming a very rich composer who can shift from extremely hard hammering short sequences of notes repeated for minutes and minutes, to very melodious at time sweet and nearly romantic music, or to some fluid aerial light nearly psychedelic sequences. The singing can vary from “Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme” to melodious singing and to extremely rapid and rhythmic utterances that become even difficult to follow. The use of repetitions is extremely important to emphasize some words, phrases and passages. Personally I do not like the German words I just used since that kind of musical diction between speaking and singing was vastly used by Bach and many others as recitative. We seem to forget it is Mozart and Haendel who made these recitatives musically equal to the arias and duets, getting the opera out of the quasi-operas of Purcell in which the operatic parts were only operatic episodes between the acts and scenes of a play. On the French soil Molière used that structure with Charpentier for His “Le Malade Imaginaire” whereas Thomas Corneille used his brother Puerre Corneille’s tragedy Médée to produce an opera in which there are long sections of recitative in the style of Bach’s Passions.

Nevertheless John Adams uses this recitative tone or technique (note it has always been present in jazz and it is the root of rap and hip hop oratorical styles) a lot and can change the dramatic color vastly from one piece to the next, even to the point of having a quasi-crazy tarantella with the British Dancing Girl. She is on the fast and even very fast trance rhythm of the polyrhythmic music of the African Americans who have kept their African traditions. Have you ever danced on that fast rhythm you find in all African American soul music? You should try one day and you will see that you can reach a trace without any rum. The British dancing girl should be Jamaican.

One major opera of this century, or the end of the previous one, by one composer who is ahead of his time because he can plunge his roots into the oldest traditions and associate them to subjects that are immediately in the news of this modern world of ours. He probably reaches some kind of perennial inspiration that transcends borders and decades.


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