The Metropolitan Opera’s decision this week to cancel a live broadcast of the controversial contemporary opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” was lamented by the New York Times today as “a step backward” for the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb.
The Times said the opera “has been widely praised” and that many of its critics “have not actually seen it.” And it called on Gelb to resist pressure to cancel altogether the eight performances of the opera, which begin Oct. 20.
The editorial has added fuel to the controversy surrounding the Met’s decision to stage the opera.
The Times did not cite any of the critics it said have “widely praised” the opera, but New York author Eve Epstein found several who panned it. She noted in an article in “The American Interest” that Richard Taruskin wrote in the New York Times in 2001 that the opera “trades in the tritest undergraduate fantasies.” And she said Taruskin, author of the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, accused author John Adams of “romanticizing terrorists.”
She said the editor of London’s Opera magazine dismissed Alice Goodman’s libretto as “desperately naïve,” suggesting that the opera is “best left unperformed.”
Epstein quoted a critic in Opera magazine as declaring it “an operatic corpse.” And she said Peter Davis of New York Magazine said in June 2003, “Leaving politics aside…what strikes me as most offensive about the work is its sheer ineptitude…. Goodman’s libretto is worse than naïve –it fails on just about every level…. All [Adams]…has managed to produce is a hopelessly meandering, tensionless score that sounds like the most vapid New Age pap.”
The daughters of Leon Klinghoffer — the 69-year-old wheelchair-bound passenger who was shot in the head and chest and pushed into the sea by Palestinian terrorists after they seized control of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 – have objected to the opera’s sympathetic portrayal of the terrorists.
“We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theater and music can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events,” the daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, said in a statement. “’The Death of Klinghoffer’ does no such thing. Its rationalization of terrorism and false moral equivalencies provide no thoughtfulness or insight.”
Epstein wrote that she herself 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?’”
The Anti-Defamation League applauded the Met’s decision to cancel the simulcast of the opera, which would have significantly expanded the production’s reach into more than 2,000 theaters in 66 countries. It said it feared the opera “could foment anti-Semitism globally or legitimize terrorism.”
“While the opera itself is not anti-Semitic, there is a concern the opera could be used in foreign countries as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism,” it said.
But the Zionist Organization of America took issue with the ADL, saying the organization “ignores the opera's egregious anti-Israel lies, defamation of all Jews, and glorification and legitimization of terrorist murderers of Jewish people.”
And it noted that the New York Daily News editorial this week said that "Death of Klinghoffer has been "reviled as anti-Semitic and horribly sympathetic to the killers."
The ZOA went on to point out that the Klinghoffer daughters had also labeled the opera anti-Semitic.
“We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic.”
The ADL told The Jewish Week in an e-mail that the Klinghoffers made that comment in 1991 after watching the original production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“At that time the opera included a scene which many considered anti-Semitic,” it said. “It depicted the Jewish passengers on the ship exhibiting stereotypical Jewish characteristics. That scene was removed by John Adams soon after, and to our knowledge has never been included in another production of the opera.”
The ZOA in a statement issued today cited a New York Times article this week that said the ADL’s national chairman, Abe Foxman, “ issued his opinion even though he never even saw the opera! We urge Mr. Foxman to view the DVD or read the opera libretto, and to issue a corrected statement that the opera is indeed anti-Semitic.”
In an e-mail to The Jewish Week, Foxman defended the ADL’s insistence that the opera is not anti-Semitic.
“The opera is highly problematic and has a strong anti-Israel bias, but it is not anti-Semitic,” Foxman wrote. “The character of Rambo, the terrorist who subsequently shoots Leon Klinghoffer, makes anti-Semitic remarks in an aria in Act 2, Scene 1. We do not view this openly articulated animus toward Jews as promoting anti-Semitism; rather, it exposes Rambo and his entrenched and destructive anti-Semitism. It helps to define the character, but it doesn’t mean the opera itself is anti-Semitic.”
At the same time, Foxman took issue with the New York Times editorial, saying, “[It] unfairly criticizes the Metropolitan Opera for ‘bowing’ to pressure of critics, when in fact the Met deserves praise for listening to the concerns of the public and particularly the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, who do not want their father’s death to be politicized or used to fuel global anti-Semitism. The editorial defends ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ as a work of art and an opportunity to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is outrageous. These terrorists hijacked an Italian ship with American tourists and murdered an American Jew. Precisely what did this have to do with Israel? Absolutely nothing.
“The Times editorial disingenuously says that the opera ‘gives voice to all sides in this terrible murder.’ In fact, the opera offers a rationalization of terrorism and tries to draw a moral equivalence between the murderers and the murdered.”
The ZOA in its statement provided excerpts from the opera to buttress its anti-Semitic claims. It said the Arab murderers of Jews are portrayed as idealists. And it observed that a hijacker named Rambo sings these words: "Wherever poor men – Are gathered they can – Find Jews getting fat – You know how to cheat – The simple, exploit – The virgin, pollute – Where you have exploited – Defame those you cheated – And break your own law – With idolatry."
The ZOA said also: “Jews are portrayed as speaking about trivial material concerns, while the Arab terrorists are romantically (and falsely) portrayed as avenging past violent persecution of Arabs by Israeli Jews. The opera falsely portrays Israeli Jews as destroying Arab homes and chasing Arabs from their homes in Israel in 1948. The opera begins with a little Arab girl watching Jews shooting at, beating and chasing Arab women and children from their homes, while a Palestinian-Arab chorus sings: ‘My father's house was razed, in 1948, When the Israelis passed over the street. . . Israel laid all to waste." One of the terrorists claims that his mother was ‘driven away’ by an Israeli ‘raid.’’
But the ZOA pointed out that in 1967, “Israeli leaders including Moshe Dayan sent soldiers to stop and reassure the tens of thousands of Arabs who were voluntarily running from Judea and Samaria across the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, in the wake of the Six Day war. The Israeli soldiers urged the Arabs to go back to their homes and reassured the Arabs that Israel would not hurt them.”
In her essay, Epstein argued that although operas often involve a dramatic death in the final scene, “the real-life, cold-blooded murder of a disabled Jewish man should not serve as an evening’s entertainment for the New York glitterati.”
Epstein, who admits to being an opera buff, wrote that although opera can be inspiring, can provoke and even inform the audience, “there are moral limits—as one might imagine if the opera tried to justify and ‘explain’ the lynching of an American slave in the South.”
She noted that Rambo’s aria “echoes the views of Der Stürmer, Julius Streicher’s Nazi newspaper, without a hint of irony or condemnation. The leitmotif of the morally and physically crippled Jew who should be disposed of has been heard before—and it did not end well.
“Mocking his helpless hostage, Rambo tells Klinghoffer, “America is one big Jew.” More’s the pity that a composer and a librettist as talented as John Adams and Alice Goodman should have crafted such a callow work. Perhaps we are meant to understand that the terrorists had ‘ideals.’ Hijacker Molqi will sing to the audience that, ‘We are soldiers fighting a war. We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals.’”
“Killing an innocent man as an act of terror happens to be a crime under international law,” Epstein wrote. “It is also a hideous act of inhumanity. One might call it a ‘political snuff murder’—and Mr. Adams has written a ‘snuff opera.’
Epstein added: “Mr. Adams is entitled to his views about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, however misguided or ill-conceived.
Appropriating Palestinian grievances for a rhapsody to terrorism is quite another matter. Perhaps any spectacle, even a hideous episode of anti-Semitic fulmination, is attractive when the Met’s sagging budget is at stake. But other artistic groups have taken a stauncher view. In 2001 the Boston Symphony canceled a scheduled performance of concert excerpts from Klinghoffer and the Glyndebourne Festival and Los Angeles Opera Company have also declined to stage it.”