NEW YORK — “The murderer of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!!!” So shouted a man, repeatedly, seated just a few rows behind me. I was glad he did it. Not that I normally condone audience interruptions during a live performance – I don’t, even if I agree with the underlying politics – but in this case it was necessary. I was seconds away from falling asleep.
But let’s back things up a bit. I was at the Metropolitan Opera’s Monday premiere of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” a work dating from 1991 about the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro. The ship was taken by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front who subsequently murdered a wheelchair-bound New York Jewish passenger named Leon Klinghoffer.
Prior to the performance I attended a two-hour rally, a peaceful scrum in a tiny traffic triangle where Broadway meets Columbus Avenue at West 64th Street. A few hundred people were there, many carrying signs declaring that the opera was anti-Semitic propaganda. Most felt the show should be shut down. No one I spoke to had actually seen it, though as New York City-based protester Noah Cohen put it, “I have no need to go look in a mirror and see a distorted version of my own face.”
The problem with the work, whose detractors included former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former governor David Patterson and US Congressional representatives Carolyn Maloney and Peter King (a nice combination of Democrats and Republicans), seemed to stem from the fact that the opera does not portray the hijackers as mindless bloodthirsty monsters, but dares to give the men and their cause a degree of backstory.
That it also shows these men shooting an innocent elderly man in cold blood and concludes with a heartbreaking aria from his widow didn’t seem to carry much weight with this bunch, nor did any discussion of whether representation in a work of fiction automatically means endorsement.
“You don’t humanize animals!” one of the podium speakers shouted. She continued, “This is exactly what the Nazis did! They normalized anti-Semitism and disguised it as high culture!” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach also passionately took the stage, shouting, “Murder is real! Morality is real!” and condemned the Jewish director of the Metropolitan, Peter Gelb.
Standing at the crosswalk to enter the Lincoln Center campus, I was assaulted by screams, flashbulbs and pointed fingers. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” they shouted as I wobbled across the street, disoriented.
The idea to base an opera on such an unusual true event came from producer/director Peter Sellars, who had recently scored a hit with the modernist “Nixon in China.” He reteamed with the same composer, John Adams, and librettist, Alice Goodman.
Adams, who writes symphonic pieces as well as opera, has since gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for “The Transmigration of Souls,” a choral work dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Goodman, who converted from Judaism to Anglicanism while working on “The Death of Klinghoffer,” claims that her association with the play has effectively blackballed her from getting new commissions.
Back in June, when “The Death of Klinghoffer” was first announced, pressure was put on the Met to cancel the production. The ADL met with director Gelb and the two sides came to something of a compromise: The show would go on, but it wouldn’t be part of their program of worldwide simulcasts to theaters around the globe.
This decision had the great effect of satisfying absolutely no one. One side saw one of the most celebrated opera companies in the world still besmirching its halls with “this filth,” and the other saw an unimpeachable arts organization folding to special interest groups.
You’d think a 23-year-old production of a show that has played all over the world couldn’t cause much of a fuss, but you’d be wrong. Not when it’s playing at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center at a time when international anti-Semitism is on the rise and when much of this production’s funding is coming from “anonymous donors.”
“Follow the money,” suggested Soloman Antar, an avuncular gentleman in a sharp suit and broad smile, and a longtime Met Opera patron “since before Lincoln Center, back on 39th Street,” who was protesting this production.
“Underneath the pure and white surface of art, there’s somebody financing this with an agenda. Maybe the Saudis, who knows?” he continued. And Antar wasn’t the only one making that accusation, though he made it clear he had no evidence, just a gut feeling.
Gut feelings were all I could go on to determine if this work really was the slippery slope to a new dawn of Jew-hating so many seemed to think it was. I only had hazy memories of the 2003 version of “Death of Klinghoffer” that was made for British television back directed by Penny Woolcock.
I watched it then because I was a fan of John Adams’s symphonic work and because I remembered the Achille Lauro incident from when I was a kid, a particularly big deal for me as Leon Klinghoffer bore a striking physical resemblance to my then-recently departed paternal grandfather.
From my blog journal a decade ago: “The [libretto] does its best to show ‘both sides’ of the ‘Achille Lauro’ highjacking — though one will always fall short trying to make terrorists who shoot an innocent man in a wheelchair sympathetic, no matter how many black and white images of a razed village are seen.”
Woolcock’s adaptation of the Adams-Goodman opera is actually one of three film versions of the story floating around out there. In 1989 there was a television movie called “The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro” starring Karl Malden and Lee Grant as Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer. A year later followed “Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair” with Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint in the same roles.
Those movies and their tabloid-style titles had the Klinghoffers’ daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, involved as consultants. The Adams-Goodman opera has been condemned by the daughters from the start, and a passionate note from them appeared in the Metropolitan’s playbill.
The daughters’ insert doesn’t play around, directly addressing the ticket buyer.
“Tonight,” it reads in part, “as you watch ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,’ a baritone will play the role of Leon Klinghoffer, and sing ‘The Aria of the Falling Body’ as he artfully falls into the sea. Competing choruses will highlight Jewish and Palestinian narratives of suffering and oppression, selectively presenting the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The terrorists, portrayed by four distinguished opera singers, will be given a back story, an ‘explanation’ for their brutal act of terror and violence.”
No reasonable person would ever argue with Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer. The traumas they’ve suffered do not leave them in a position to think dispassionately on this subject – nor should they.
But to protesters truly worried that this is dangerous anti-Semitic propaganda ready to sow seeds of hate, I can tell you as someone who watched it, it is not. And even if it were, I can’t think of a less effective way to spread propaganda than with a difficult, boring and (mostly) tuneless opera.
There is, indeed, a moment early in the opera in which we hear a lament of the Palestinian people – shrouded women who sing about villages now within Israel’s borders. This is so shocking? This is news? Is there possibly one person on the planet who would sit down and watch an avant-garde opera who isn’t already aware about the formation of the State of Israel and its continuing regional conflict?
To protesters truly worried that this is dangerous anti-Semitic propaganda ready to sow seeds of hate, I can tell you, as someone who watched it, it is not
Later in the opera a young man walks toward his first rifle as a chorus sings about his childhood and his family killed at the Sabra and Shatila camps. The music swells and green flags wave. It is one of the only “enjoyable” moments of the show, inasmuch as it has some energy.
As the lights for the act break dimmed, the audience roared in appreciation for the propulsive music and a protester in the crowd shouted something in reply. (A report on Twitter said he started saying a Kaddish. I can’t confirm that, but I can definitely say it wasn’t a shout of “bravo!”)
Certainly to a Jew – or to anyone, frankly – seeing a boy molded into someone who’d shoot an innocent man like Leon Klinghoffer is troubling. But does “The Death of Klinghoffer” present him as a hero? Absolutely not.
The most striking scene, for me, comes after the shooting, when we switch to a symbolic sequence of Israel’s early settlers. The music is rich and emotional, and through interpretive dance we see a representation of “making the deserts bloom.” Human forms emerge from the soil and take a Christ-like pose. The opera ends with the sympathetic Marilyn Klinghoffer mourning her lost husband, and lamenting that since only one man was killed, few will remember.
That clearly isn’t the case. Nearly thirty years later and New York City was turned into a living, breathing Tom Wolfe story for a night because of this production. And while there were a few interruptions (a woman’s voice shouted an obscenity late in the second act) the protest was peaceful.
I don’t have to tell you what happens when a cartoon or a YouTube video pops up that offends Muslims. But unfortunately, much of the sour taste in my mouth comes from the protest, not the production.
To protest against art and free speech is always dicey. I personally did not like “The Death of Klinghoffer” at all, but I recognize that John Adams is a real deal artist. Alice Goodman, I’m much more on the fence about. (Some of the lyrics are baffling examples of purple prose. Really not for me.)
The grandstanding against the production gave it far more attention than it deserved. And I think it is particularly problematic to cry wolf at a time when anti-Semitism – real anti-Semitism – is on the increase in Western Europe. All the megaphones and signs did was put opera-goers on the defensive.
Before the show I spoke with two of the bartenders selling absurdly priced mini-bottles of Pellegrino. Neither had seen anything like this night in the 20 years on the job between them. They weren’t worried about interruptions — “Did you see how many cops are here?” — nor were they too versed in the specifics of the controversy.
“We were told there might be some people who were nervous, and just to keep everyone at ease,” the younger of the two, David Henriques, said as he poured. “For me, I’m just here to get my paycheck.”