Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 December 2005
Is The Death of Klinghoffer anti-Semitic? Performances of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 1991 were at the epicentre of a controversy that continues to this day; the New York audience was – and remains – uniquely hostile to the work. A careful reception analysis shows that New York audiences reacted vehemently not so much to an ideological position on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but to specific nuances in the satirical portrayal of American Jewish characters in one controversial scene later cut from the opera, a scene that must be read closely and in relation to specifically American-Jewish questions of ethnic humour, assimilation, identity and multiculturalism in the mass media. I understand the opera's negative reception in the larger context of the increasingly severe crises that beset American Jewish self-identity during the Reagan-Bush era. Ultimately the historical ability of Jews to assimilate through comedy, to ‘enter the American culture on the stage laughing’, in Leslie Fiedler's famous formulation, will have to be reconsidered. A close reading of contested moments from the opera shows librettist Alice Goodman and composer John Adams avoiding the romance of historical self-consciousness as they attempt to construct a powerful yet subtle defence of the ordinary and unassuming.