Whose life is it anyway? ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ and appropriation art

Composer John Adams

Composer John Adams

A lovely recent lunch with my pal, novelist Barbara Nachman, yielded a provocative conversation about the controversy surrounding John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” and the use – some would say, the exploitation – of other people’s lives in art.

For the uninitiated – and it’s hard to imagine any cultivated human being who is – “Klinghoffer” is the story of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt by four Palestinians demanding the release of 50 compatriots from Israeli prisons in exchange for the ship’s safety. Leon Klinghoffer – a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American passenger celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary with terminally ill wife, Marilyn – was cruelly shot by the hijackers, his body callously thrown overboard. Ultimately, the ship was released and the hijackers were captured by the American military and tried for murder. (The ship, which had an ill-fated history to say the least, sank in 1994.)

Adams’ 1991 opera has been accused of sympathetically portraying the terrorists and thus being anti-Semitic, most recently when it was scheduled to be performed at The Metropolitan Opera and simulcast to theaters worldwide. General manager Peter Gelb’s Solomon-like decision cancelled the HD broadcast while allowing the production to go forward – a decision that has pleased neither critics nor civil libertarians and led to protests at The Met.

My friend Barbara’s objection to the work did not lie chiefly in its potential anti-Semitism or its presentation. Rather she wondered how Adams could create an opera about someone who but for his murder would never have been famous and therefore should not have had his privacy violated. (Klinghoffer’s daughters Ilsa and Lisa have denounced the work for its anti-Semitism and exploitation of their parents.)

Their objections and my friend’s concern raise a fascinating question: “Who’s in a name?,” as Barbara said to me. Why didn’t Adams change the names?

The opera would’ve still been the same story. Everyone would’ve known who inspired it. Which leaves us with the question: Why create works based on real life?

In a sense, everything is based on reality. (As the Romanian director Liviu Ciulei once told me, “All originality is lack of information.)

Some of the greatest works – Shakespeare’s come to mind – are based on history. Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” are just two epics inspired by newspaper accounts of maritime tragedies. Charles Dickens got much of the material for his novels not only from his own impoverished, disgraced childhood but from the stories he covered as a court reporter.

Global technology has upped the ante. (One of the concerns about The Met’s presentation of the opera was that the simulcast would inflame anti-Semitism in some of the world’s hot spots.) Meanwhile, the Internet has made stories’ ripped from the headlines instantaneous and at times excruciatingly intimate. And reality TV has blurred the lines between fiction and reality by elevating everyday life to performance art.

One of the offshoots of this blurring of lines has been the appropriation of other people’s works – and other people’s lives. Recently, Anna Todd got a six-figure book deal, as well as a movie one, for her erotic fan fiction work “After,” about a college freshman’s damaging relationship with Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction. (The saga has drawn 2 billion eyeballs to Wattpad, the site on which it will continue to appear.)

Fan fiction is fiction inspired by real people or characters created by someone else. It is often erotic – even homoerotic – and generally written by women for women. They can get away with, say, spinning off “Twilight” (E.L. James, anyone?) or marrying off Novak Djokovic to Roger Federer, because these writers are creating fiction that they’re not selling.

Todd’s book deal would suggest all bets are off. This from Alexandra Alter’s New York Times’ story:

“Copyright and trademark experts say fictional representations of real people are protected as free speech. It’s illegal to use a photograph or a celebrity or a band’s name to sell merchandise without the subject’s consent, but there’s nothing to stop novelists from creating fictional characters based on living celebrities.”

And apparently nothing to stop opera composers from creating fictional characters based on individuals who have had fame thrust upon them.