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Opera Death of Klinghoffer does not romanticize murder

I cannot imagine the grief and pain Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer suffered, and still suffer, from the murder of their father Leon Klinghoffer. To see an opera portraying that murder must be unutterably painful. They deserve nothing but sympathy, and they have mine.

Their Oct. 24 op-ed in J. is filled with that pain and suffering. From their point of view, I find it extremely difficult to take issue with any of their criticisms of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” but as a Jewish cast member of the original production, I, too, have things I must express, and I will say them.

In March 1991, when the opera opened in Brussels and subsequently played in Lyon and Vienna, I sang the role of Omar, the terrorist, a role originally written for me as a mezzo-soprano. Over the course of a year and a half, I sang in some 20 performances, including with the San Francisco Opera in November 1992.

Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer say: “The opera rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”

Does the opera give a reason for Leon’s murder? In no way. There is no reason. Does it romanticize his murder? Most assuredly not. Does it legitimize it? Never.

Leon Klinghoffer is killed for no other reason than that he was an American and a Jew. Are these reasons? As the daughters themselves say: “To them he was just a Jew — an American in a wheelchair whose life they considered worthless.” This is quite true, and it is all the “reason” that the opera gives. Nowhere does the work state or imply that any of the Palestinians’ grievances justify the murder of an innocent man.

Does the opera romanticize the murder? How? Does the fact that one of the terrorists has a poetical bent and sings a touching aria about his life make his ultimate violence romantic? He is human, like the Nazis who loved music and killed Jews.

Another terrorist sings that his heart is “all violence” and that it will break if he does not murder Jews and go to heaven. Where is the romance in that utterance? He is an impoverished, destitute teenager who is in love with violence and his own anger.

Does the opera seem to make clear that this horrific murder is legitimate because of the suffering of the Palestinians? It does not. The murder is, and is portrayed as, a senseless killing that nothing can justify — as Leon himself sings in an aria when he confronts one of the terrorists: “You just want to see people die.” He understands these terrorists, who “pour gasoline over women passengers on the bus to Tel Aviv.” He and his wife are simple, honest people who stand up for themselves and see life as it is.

If it was the intention of the creators of the opera to give equivalence to the passions of both Israelis and Palestinians, it did not succeed in this attempt. But what it did do, and in which it succeeds most affectingly and effectively, is to give the last, most telling word to Marilyn Klinghoffer, in one of the most heart-rending expressions of grief in opera: Her aria encompasses not only her outrage — and ours — but the little ways in which she will miss her husband. No widow, and no children of a murdered father, could ask for a more just, a more truthful final statement, which says: One single, simple, innocent life weighs more heavily than any ideological grievance. The character of Marilyn Klinghoffer feels this, she knows this, and we feel it along with her. We are, finally, human beings. Each life is precious, and when it is gone, especially when it is ripped from us by murder, we grieve inconsolably and ask “Why?”

I am deeply sorry that the Klinghoffer daughters feel, as the headline of the opinion piece states, that the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” sullies the memory of their father. To me it shows his simplicity, his humanity and in giving him voice, it gives voice to us all.

Stephanie Friedman is a retired professional singer who performed in operas, oratorios and concerts for 30 years. She lives in Berkeley.