Arts & Culture

How Does it Feel to Play a Terrorist in “The Death of Klinghoffer”?

Jewish dancer Jesse Kovarsky knows. Read More

By / November 18, 2014
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So, one of the terrorists in the recent New York run of the suuuuuper-controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer was played by—who else?—a Jew.

If this is your first time on the internet and you’re unfamiliar with the Klinghoffer fracas (greetings!), I suggest you familiarize yourself here and here. (tl;dr version: a Jewish American named Leon Klinghoffer was murdered aboard a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, someone made an opera about it, a lot of people find the opera deeply offensive, others think it’s OK/not that big of a deal/really good.)

Anyway, dancer Jesse Kovarsky has published a very interesting essay on Gawker about his experience playing Omar, the hijacker who shoots Klinghoffer in the opera. Key to landing the role was his “ample facial hair” and “ethnically ambiguous” look—and of course, talent:

I must admit it was a strange phone call to my parents (not opera fans) to let them know I had gotten a leading role in a controversial contemporary opera playing the part of a Palestinian terrorist. As a liberal Jew from the northern suburbs of Chicago, I never imagined those words would come out of my mouth. I also realized I knew very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In order to preserve my humble naivety, I entered the rehearsal process seeking to gather as much information as I could.

Kovarsky did a lot of reading during rehearsals: Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Palestine by Joe Sacco, The History of the Jews by Paul Johnson, and The Achille Lauro Hijacking by Micahel K. Bohn. “We were viewing the subject matter from as many angles as we could,” he writes. “As there are not two sides to Israel-Palestine, there are not two sides to Klinghoffer.”

So, does Kovarsky sympathize with Omar? Yes and no. On the one hand, he explains, it’s impossible to fully insert yourself into the mind of a terrorist when you’re a secular millennial who doesn’t have any “extreme beliefs.” But on the other hand, having a massive weapon around your neck can certainly help you situate yourself in a zealous, fanatical mindset:

In order for me to gain access to that frame of mind, it ultimately came down to the last five minutes I had to myself before going on stage. That’s when I put my AK-47 around my neck. I felt its weight, its power, and its significance, and I begin to convince myself that everything I did from that point on was for a higher cause.

Full piece is here.

(Image: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Related: The Death of Klinghoffer: “Art for Art’s Sake” or Anti-Semitism?