I have always had a talent for growing ample facial hair, from the time I was in elementary school—when my mother would trim my neck hair before I hopped on the school bus—to my initiation into young Jewish adulthood at my Bar Mitzvah, at which my newly formed mustache made its entrance into the world with a growing pattern similar to a Chia Pet. My facial hair has paved the way to some of my most critical moments in my life, including my recent experience of playing a Palestinian terrorist on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in the controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer.
Klinghoffer, which tells the story of the 1985 terrorist hijacking of the cruise liner the Achille Lauro and the death of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound New York Jew on vacation with friends on the ship, has gained infamy for its subject matter, attracting scores of picketers claiming it the show is either anti-Semitic and anti-Palestine. On opening night, the opera attracted a crowd of 500 protestors charged with a mission to disrupt the evening's performance.
For me, the sight of all those protestors outside of the Met was frightening, empowering, and humbling. I don't aim to impose my limited understanding of global conflict on anyone—I'm a dancer—but I recognize that the nature of warfare naturally creates division and our relationships to whatever allegiance is cultivated by your upbringing and your willingness to challenge and educate yourself on matters. This opera has provided me the opportunity to see both sides of a conflict that, for the majority of my life, I hadn't seen.
My involvement in this opera began over two years ago when I was living in London. I had just graduated college and was at the start of my professional dance career when I saw a notice for an audition for an opera seeking darker-skinned Israeli looking men. Proud to consider myself ethnically ambiguous, I reached out to the ad with an image of myself attached and was invited to audition.
At the time, I was sporting the heftiest beard I've grown to date, thanks to my involvement in the film Anna Karenina, in which I paraded around with a six-inch beard to resemble a 19th-century Russian elite (ethnic ambiguity strikes again). As the audition for Klinghoffer progressed, it was clear that the creative team saw something in me beyond my beard, and I was cast as the young, naive terrorist named Omar, the man who kills Leon Klinghoffer. I originated the role at the English National Opera, and then I was invited to come reprise the role at The Met.
It was an interesting honor to be given such a meaty role, especially as a dancer. Dancers don't often get recognized in the opera scene. But 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.
Rehearsals for this opera were the most educational and interesting creative processes I have ever been a part of. The director, Tom Morris, assigned the cast homework, designating research topics for us to present upon. The topics included the 1948 war, the Yom Kippur war, the Gulf war, the Kinghoffers, the friends of the Klinghoffers aboard the ship, the terrorists aboard the ship, the crew on board, the Palestine Liberation Front and Palestine Liberation Organization.
We read books such as 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. Since I was playing a role of a terrorist, I was asked to research martyrdom and to look up notable individuals who were martyrs. Not only were we feeding ourselves tons of information and history concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we were viewing the subject matter from as many angles as we could. As there are not two sides to Israel-Palestine, there are not two sides to Klinghoffer.
One of the biggest arguments protestors have against Klinghoffer is that it humanizes terrorists. But terrorists are human. I wanted to present Omar as a multi-dimensional young man who is dedicated to a life's mission, yet in the moment of fulfilling that quest, he ultimately questions his actions and finds himself in moral dilemma—should he kill Klinghoffer or no?
It can be difficult to communicate such complexities in an opera when you do not sing, but in my interpretation, Omar struggles with the emotional weight of his actions, and of committing the most severe act of violence one can. When it came to psychologically inserting myself into the role where I'm holding a pistol behind a man's head in front of 4,000 audience members, I had to identify with a mindset that was seriously foreign to me. 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.
Of course, there's no way for me to fully inhabit the brain of a terrorist, but attempting to understand Omar has been challenging and illuminating. In order to commit to a life of martyrdom one must believe in something so much that there is no other option. There's a sincere sense of absolutism.
Amusingly, I don't really have any extreme beliefs—I'm a millennial, after all, and I carry myself with a relative mixture of apathy and realism. When it comes to religion, I'm more of a spectator than an engager. At this point in my life, I hold nothing in my heart that can be interpreted as a life's mission. So, for me, it was strange to play a role where I had to believe in something. The silver lining of playing a terrorist: it has inspired me to trust my neutral millennial mindset until I educate myself on all perspectives surrounding a conflict.
Beyond that, I feel fortunate to have been a part of something so significant. Klinghoffer feels alive, and more relevant than ever. How often does opera resonate on a global scale? It's been an amazing experience. This coming from a slightly apathetic, ethnically ambiguous, culturally-identifying Jew who can grow wickedly solid facial hair.
The Death of Klinghoffer closes Saturday.
Jesse Kovarsky is from Chicago and graduated from Skidmore College studying Dance and Art History. He was a member of Transitions Dance Company where he received his Masters in Performance from Laban Conservatory Music and Dance. He has spent the past four years in London performing for several choreographers and companies and appeared in two major motion pictures. The past two years he has been working with the physical theatre company Punch Drunk. He is currently performing in their production of Sleep No More here in NYC.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]