John Adams’ contemporary opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” has been called “perhaps the most controversial opera of the 20th century.”
The opera depicts the brutal killing of Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old disabled Jewish American who was shot in 1985 by four Palestinian hijackers while aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. His body — still in its wheelchair — was then hurled overboard.
Last week’s decision by the Metropolitan Opera to cancel its closed-circuit simulcast of next fall’s production of the opera in 2,000 movie theater worldwide — as well as the radio broadcast — has juxtaposed the right of artistic freedom against communal sensitivities.
Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican Center in London, Europe’s largest performing arts center, sent a Twitter message calling the Met’s decision “shocking shortsighted and indefensible.”
But Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and Fordham University law professor, welcomed the news.
“I know it is scandalous for a novelist to say, but to me it was a respectful and responsible thing to do,” he said.
In a statement explaining the decision, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said that although he is convinced the opera is not anti-Semitic, “I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
The statement said the Met would proceed with the scheduled eight performances of the opera beginning Oct. 20 and that “in deference to the daughters of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, the Met has agreed to include a message from them both in the Met’s Playbill and on its website.”
The message has not yet been posted. But the Klinghoffer daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, wrote a letter to The New York Times last week explaining their opposition to the opera and objecting to a Times’ editorial that lamented the Met’s decision and calling it “a step backward.” They said they were particularly upset that the Times claimed the opera “gives voice to all sides in this terrible murder.”
They said their father had been singled out solely because he was Jewish and that his “memory is trivialized in an opera that rationalizes terrorism and tries to find moral equivalence between the murderers and the murdered. Imagine if Mr. Adams had written an opera about the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, and sought to balance their worldview with that of those who perished in the twin towers. The outcry would be immediate and overwhelming.”
The sisters also dismissed as an “outrage” the assertion that the opera is a “work of art” that affords viewers a chance to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“These terrorists hijacked an Italian ship with American tourists and murdered an American Jew. What, precisely, did this have to do with Israel? Absolutely nothing. … There is never a justification for terrorism.”
Adams, who was unavailable for comment, offered his own explanation of the opera in a video on the Met’s web page, saying: “Our opera tries to look at the terrorists and the passengers and see humanity in both of them. And for some people that is an egregious mistake. I don’t feel it is. I feel that for all of the brutality and moral wrong that they perpetrated in killing this man, they are still human beings and there still has to be reasons why they did this act. What [librettist] Alice Goodman and I tried to do is to create a work of art that makes people feel, and music is ultimately about feeling.”
In a statement, Adams insisted that his opera “accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder. It acknowledges the dreams and the grievances of not only the Israeli but also the Palestinian people, and in no form condones or promotes violence, terrorism or anti-Semitism.”
He added that the Met’s “deeply regrettable decision … goes far beyond issues of ‘artistic freedom,’ and ends in promoting the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the man who convinced Gelb to cancel the simulcasts, said the Met’s decision was a compromise.
“I shared with him the sensitivities of the children of Klinghoffer and the concern that if this production played on its own in the Viennas and Brussels of the world, it could be used to enhance attitudes towards Jews at a time when anti-Semitism is rising,” he said. “He spoke of artistic freedom and the fact that this a brilliant musical. … I would rather it not play anywhere and he everywhere, and we found a middle ground.”
Asked about those critical of him for objecting to an opera he has not seen, Foxman replied: “I don’t need to see it. I read the libretto and professionals at the ADL read it. The daughters saw it, and that is good enough for me; I accept their judgment.”
Although the Zionist Organization of America insisted in a statement that the opera is anti-Semitic, Foxman said an anti-Semitic section was removed after it was first performed in 1991 and that the opera today is not anti-Semitic. He said one of the terrorists uses anti-Semitic language in speaking about Klinghoffer, but said “that is part of this guy’s character.”
Nevertheless, a Twitter post from ZOA Campus this week insisted: “If an opera is a vehicle for promoting anti-Semitism, it’s anti-Semitic.”
Anthony Tommasini, The Times’ chief classical music critic, called the Met’s decision “a dismaying artistic cave-in.”
“The Jewish vacationers are caricatures, it is said, while the Palestinians are veritably sanctified by the opera’s attempt to explore their suffering,” he wrote. “It is in the nature of art to provoke disagreement. Fine. So, simulcast ‘Klinghoffer’ and let audiences grapple with the piece. …
“Art can offer insight and consolation, yes. It can also challenge, baffle and incense us. This ‘Klinghoffer’ production could have been an invaluable teaching moment for the Met and its audiences. Mr. Gelb could have assembled Middle East historians, religious leaders and the ‘Klinghoffer’ creative team to have a public dialogue, culminating in the simulcast.”
But Foxman questioned the value of such an exercise.
“These are Arab Palestinian terrorists who hijacked a passenger ship with all kinds of tourists and killed an invalid Jew,” he said. “What is there to discuss?”
Rosenbaum said he agreed with Foxman that showing this opera “in Western Europe, where there is an amazing amount of anti-Semitism, would only be throwing lighter fluid over the coals. … You would be giving an opportunity to show the purported righteousness of the cause of the terrorists.”
He compared this controversy to the one generated by the 2005 movie “Munich,” which depicted the effort of Israeli agents to track down and kill members of the Palestinian group that kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 summer Olympics in Germany. Israelis and Palestinians criticized the movie.
“Palestinians criticized it for not letting them state why they did what they did, and Israelis objected because it didn’t depict the Palestinians as being purely savages,” Rosenbaum said. “This is the objection to the opera. We want to see the terrorists as pure savages, and the opera adds a humanity to them.”
He added that audiences who see the production in New York pay top dollar, come in tuxedos and are presumed to be well read enough to understand the complexities and nuances the author is seeking to convey.
New York author Eve Epstein writing in The American Interest said she found the opera nothing but propaganda masquerading as artistic expression.
“This so-called musical masterpiece flirts with incitement to violence and traffics in hate speech, while terrorism is romanticized,” she wrote. “An alarm must be sounded loudly and clearly enough to pierce all moral obfuscation. Met Opera sponsors such as [Michael] Bloomberg, the Toll Brothers, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Neubauer Family Foundation, should not wish to be associated with such a morally bankrupt production. And countless Met subscribers may wish to ask Mr. Gelb one more question: What can we expect at the Met as an encore? An operatic rendering of ‘The Beheading of Daniel Pearl?’”