Thoughts on Present Discontents: II. Opera: Why So Serious?

02/03/2012 16:04 GMT | Updated 01/05/2012 10:12 BST

Where is the line between politics and a work of art? Does politics embed itself in art more than we realise? Is politics a stimulus for a piece of art? Or is it something more?

Perhaps we can relate to Opera, as an art form, because of its political commentary on the past and present; but we can also relate to Opera because of its vivacious tales, which compel us to listen and feel.

I refer in this instance to the English National Opera's production of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams, with a libretto by Alice Goodman - a marvellous work.


The Death of Klinghoffer, for those who don't already know, recalls the killing of a Jewish-American tourist during the hijacking of a Mediterranean cruise liner by Palestinian militants.

The production's arrival to London has sparked controversy with groups accusing the English National Opera of "giving a voice to terrorism". Reviewing a previous performance, the musicologist Richard Taruskin in The New York Times accused the opera of "romanticizing terrorism" and being "anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-bourgeois", effectively calling for it not to be performed again. Is this too much of a serious view? Did this particular reviewer and audiences alike judge this opera on a political basis rather than its artistry?

Although many thoughtful pieces were written before Klinghoffer's premiere here (including a feature by Jessica Duchen in The Independent) I decided to avoid the various pieces of press until I had seen the opera, so that I could judge the work on an artistic premise.

Sometimes I think we take these things far too seriously:what about story telling and the preservation of history? I wonder what these cynical critics make of Le nozze di Figaro (another politically based opera from our friend Mozart). The play, on which Da Ponte based the libretto for Figaro, by Beaumarchais was, at first, banned in Vienna because of its satire of the aristocracy that was considered dangerous in the decade before the French Revolution; it shocked Vienna's aristocratic audience with it's tale of servants using all their wiles to bring about the downfall and humiliation of their master. The opera became one of Mozart's most successful works.

When I travel I have a tendency to watch films. I find them insightful and though rendering. While recently watching the French film "Sarah's Key" the opening line states: "Sometimes our stories are the hardest to tell, but if we don't tell them they are forgotten" - The subject of negligence is referred to in Alice Goodman's libretto who, while in conversation with Jessica Duchen, said that she wanted "to tell the truth as clearly as I could about the situation... But I was trying to recognise this absolute truth: that the person who wants to kill you, the person who hates you, the person who doesn't understand you, is likewise a human being. The old man in a wheelchair who dislikes you is a human being." - This is where my admiration lies - this is story telling, this is drama and this unimaginable reality is the basis for an operatic tale based on a real-life situation that should be remembered for what it was.

I arrived at the opening night of Klinghoffer as one lone protester stood outside the Coliseum. While sat in my plush red opera house seat I was saddened, scared, emotionally affected, in tears and ultimately deeply moved; this is the operatic journey that I crave, I ate my share and I came out satisfied dramatically and musically - I had been told a story - It turns out that this one actually happened.

Referring back to that quote from "Sarah's Key": "Sometimes our stories are the hardest to tell, but if we don't tell them they are forgotten": Here the creative re created a moment in reality so that they are remembered, it can show us many aspects of humanity as an entity and perhaps even try to remind us of our own sanity.

What incredible artistry is displayed in John Adams and Alice Goodman's writing, as well as that invincible cast of singers and director Tom Morris, who gave us a truly modern opera of worth and substantial depth.

Perhaps I am naïve but politics is secondary to this emotive re-construction in the name of art. Think of it as art and not politics otherwise its existence is worth less. I suppose that I believe telling it how it is dramatically is artistic brilliance and that one shouldn't mix politics and opera too much and realise that politics is merely a stimulus (though one also supposes this may not always be the case).

Why so serious?

The Death of Klinghoffer runs at the English Coliseum until March 9th,