“Everyone has an opinion about it”: The Death Of Klinghoffer‘s Jesse Kovarsky In Conversation

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(c) Kyle Barnes

Jesse Kovarsky has little digital imprint for a professional dancer (his last tweet was months ago)—making him one of the few artists who doesn’t need an online presence to book major gigs. A charismatic Jewish kid from the Chicago suburbs, Jesse started dancing at 20, moved to London to pursue theater, and immediately began landing roles in everything from Anna Karenina to The Muppets. (Is this a new wave of the Jewish parenting fantasy? Not a doctor. Not a lawyer. But just as good! Pu pu pu!) After moving to New York this past summer, Jesse landed a spot playing as the flamboyant, orgiastic “Boy Witch” in Sleep No More, before he was cast in what may be the most controversial role of his career: A Palestinian terrorist.

Opening Monday at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, The Death Of Klinghoffer tells the true story of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jew vacationing with his wife, who was murdered by PLO terrorists during the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship “Achille Lauro”. The opera has stirred a visceral outcry from members of the Jewish community, with vehement claims of anti-Semitism that have sparked a series of protests and calls for boycott. For its part, The Met offers audience members a minisite for education and virtual discussion after the show’s premiere.

I sat down with Jesse to hear his take on his unique role in the show and the production at large.

How are the producers and/or directors treating the controversy and are they educating the performers in any way?

I can speak most about the director Tom Morris, who is a delight to work for because he’s insanely informed and insanely prepared to be in charge of this opera. He encourages us to do our homework. This opera takes place in 1985, so there’s a context we have to be familiar with, not just general issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s interesting to see the perspective of it back in 1985 compared to how it is now.

How is it compared to now?

Now I think it’s a bit more extreme. Now everyone has an opinion about it. I read a comic-book-style narrative about Joe Sacco, who went to Palestine and Israel in 1991. There seemed to be no hope at that point. There was a lot of dispossession, a lot of taking away from what they used to own and what they used to have. Now it feels like there’s a lot more fight from their perspective. And it seems like the terrorist aspect of it is more heightened since 9/11.

Maya Lahyani  and Jesse Kovarsky (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

(c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

What do you wish critics knew about the production? How would you answer them, and do you think they’re missing something?

It’s an interesting way to put it actually, because it seems like a lot of people criticizing the show aren’t actually critics.

Okay, people who are criticizing who aren’t professionals.

First off, I’d encourage them to see the opera. Across the board it’s like everyone who’s criticizing it has not seen this opera and they’re basing their assumptions and critiques on a few texts from the libretto.

Clearly I think, and this is one thing Tom’s done a really good job of, the opera itself is not taking an opinion on the matter of Israel and Palestine, or terror, or what’s right and wrong—there is an obvious understanding of what’s good and bad in the world, but this whole thing is about dispossession in general. The Israelis represent dispossession in the sense that they represent hope. In WWII their lives were taken from them, everything they owned was taken from them, and they’re brought to Israel. And this is a land promised to them. Then sady, forcibly the English government and Western governments just threw out this whole other group of people that had been there before as well. So then we also look at the dispossession of Palestinians who basically were denied their land. But essentially, they’re the same people. That’s what this whole show is all about. That the Israelis and the Palestinians are the same people that have just been dealt different hands.

Two sides of the same coin.

Right. I think it’s really a hindrance for people to block themselves from seeing art or something that might have a political agenda in their eyes based off their own political opinions. Because this is something that actually happened. I think people are really afraid to see terrorism, or terrorism kind of humanized. Visible terrorism is what I think people are afraid of.

How would you say your family is reacting to all of this?

It was really interesting to let my family know that I was going to be playing a Palestinian terrorist…while staring at my Bar Mitzvah picture hanging in my living room at the same time. I think they’re ultimately very proud of me to be in a role that’s quite vulnerable, and to put myself out there in a way that’s not going to be loved. It takes a lot of courage to do a role like Omar and find sympathy in it. Whether people are going to agree with it or not, I’m committed.

If there’s anything Judaism has taught me, it’s to be committed. And to try something new every day. That’s what my rabbi said in Sunday school, I remember: “Don’t go to bed without having tried something new the day before.” And for me, this is a completely new experience. So if Judaism has taught me that, that says something.

I’m glad we got a Bar Mitzvah mention in there. What about the rest of the cast and crew? What’s the pulse on how they’re feeling?

I think everyone who’s in this opera wants to be in this opera. They understand it, the libretto is insanely wonderful and poetic, the music by John Adams is so intricate and it’s one of the most, I think, compelling compositions of modern times. It’s an honor to be a part of something like this. And to also be a part of something that is so reactionary and is so relevant and does create such a stir. We’re in it to make it as good as we can and to preserve the integrity of the piece itself because there’s such beauty in this piece. It’s a dark subject matter, but there’s such beauty in it.

What are the discussions like among the cast?

There’s no conflict among the cast. I think the most interesting person who’s shared her challenges with us is… the role of Omar actually has an aria, but it’s sung by a Palestinian woman, who is being played by an Israeli. She’s been in the war, she’s fought for Israel, she knows the conflict. It is home for her. It’s interesting because her truth as an Israeli has a parallel to the truth of the Palestinian.

(c) Kyle Barnes

(c) Kyle Barnes

It seems like the cast is very diverse.

There are Jews, Russians, Australians, British…even Southerners.

Are there any concerns about your safety?

Some people have been getting emails. Very uncharming ones…but my biggest fear is just that I’m going to get booed because I’m playing the bad guy. I’m not doing this to be that person, I’m doing this because I believe in the work itself. I don’t agree with the character, I don’t think this is the approach that one should take in that kind of situation. But I do to a degree, having studied the role and having studied the culture of Palestine, as a Jew I really do find an empathy with that situation.

The way you’re describing it sounds like it would be healthy to see, in that it’s bringing some unification between the two in times of serious conflict.

Ultimately it just comes down to what people are, who they care about, and their values.

How do you think the portrayal of Klinghoffer is handled? If your character is the only one with a backstory, is it imbalanced? Is his portrayal not as humanizing?

I think he’s a really real role. It’s something you can relate to. They don’t have his backstory for this opera but I kind of appreciate it because it…I don’t know if it heightens it, but it makes it a real experience to just focus on that story of him in that situation: the relationship between him and Marilyn Klinghoffer, their lives are slightly mundane and average, and something like this, something so catastrophic and so big, has happened to them. And that’s what I appreciate about it. There doesn’t need to be this huge build up of who he was. I think the beauty of it is he’s just like anyone else and he didn’t deserve to die.

I also think for an American audience we’re very familiar with his American lifestyle, more than a Palestinian life or backstory.

Yes, you can picture what Klinghoffer’s like, but you couldn’t really picture what Omar was like.

What’s also interesting about American, or maybe Western audiences, is that we need a hero. Klinghoffer himself isn’t necessarily a hero even though he has an aria that does defend the Americans and Jews on the ship. But it’s not like he wins. He dies. It’s Marilyn Klinghoffer who has an incredible aria that puts complete blame on this punk kid and the captain who hid them. It’s hard for me to combat an argument of most of the critics saying it’s anti-Semitic. Because they’re not giving a real reason why they believe it’s anti-Semitic.

I can tell you the two main things I’ve heard. The first is that Klinghoffer himself is not portrayed in a positive light. He’s portrayed in the stereotypical light of a rich miserly Jew, and that he’s not a humanized, relatable character the way that the Palestinians are portrayed. And the second is that given the timing globally of how anti-Semitism is on the rise, and with the conflict as such a hot topic, it’s inflammatory.

It’s like saying it’s contagious.

What about Klinghoffer’s portrayal, the first point?

If you see him as a stereotypical rich, money, whatever Jew—that’s your own interpretation of it. I don’t think that’s the interpretation from the opera itself. If you side with one group or the other, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to want to hear about the other side. We’re so ingrained to believe what we believe in with this conflict, and people are so resistant to hearing about who these other people are.

As someone who’s been raised pro-Israel, who’s a Jew, who grew up in a country that is pro-Israel, I never knew anything about Palestine or Palestinians. And to be invited into this opera and encouraged to study that history, I’ve been exposed to a world that I totally…I’m confused by my own upbringing in terms of how I see the conflict, how I see it now.

How has it changed for you?

I honestly have very little hope that it will ever be resolved. I recognize that, and the opera just kind of states that this is something that may always be there. The interesting thing is the fact this opera takes place in 1985 and we’re still talking about it, the text is still as resonant now. That’s very significant.

Is the message of the opera one of hopelessness, or is there something positive?

I think it’s impactful. I don’t think you’re going to leave feeling good about it. It’s hard to say because everything in the opera has happened already. And it’s pretty shit. Everything that’s happened has been devastating. Nothing is “good.”

I will say that there was supposed to be a panel discussion of this opera and it was cancelled, which is a shame. They cancelled the HD broadcast, and then people pulled out of the panel because by cancelling it it does kind of say that this anti-Semitic. And certain people were upset so then it was decided to cancel the panel. If anything, I wish people took the time to listen to what some of those defending have to say towards this opera. They might be inclined and open to viewing it.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity

The Death of Klinghoffer opens Oct. 20th and runs through Nov 15th at The Metropolitan Opera. For More Information

What do you think?

About The Author

Rachel Goldberg

Rachel Goldberg is a New York-based writer currently working in host development and editorial at SideTour. Credits include Random House, xoJane, and Thinkful, and as a former social media writer and producer, her clients have ranged from Engadget to The Kraken Rum. In addition, Rachel is an acclaimed peanut butter aficionado. She tweets @rachfoot.

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