NEW YORK — John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” is a work so consistently accused of anti-Semitic ideology that questions of freedom of speech pepper any debate about the opera.
With its Metropolitan Opera debut set for October 20, opposition to the work has increased and the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy’s held a “Teach-in” Tuesday night at the Walter Reade Theater (the Met’s Lincoln Center neighbor).
ISGAP turned to academics, activists, experts on the artistic medium, and a particularly impassioned Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to protest NY’s main opera house’s forthcoming presentation.
John Adams penned the piece in 1991, drawing his story from the 1985 Palestinian Liberation Front’s seizure of the cruise liner “Achille Lauro” and murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer. Since its original publication, the opera has met innumerable accusations of painting its terrorist characters with sympathy and its Jewish figures with contempt.
At the ISGAP event, executive director Charles Asher Small countered charges directed at Jewish activist groups for allegedly disrupting the Met’s freedom of speech by citing the equally important right of “the freedom from speech,” a value he suggests is better preserved in America’s fellow Western nations.
The cost of each “Klinghoffer” production, as Small and his contemporaries believe, is the global spread of anti-Semitism.
Guests of ISGAP honed in on the specific transgressions attributed to “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Professor Phyllis Chesler, a CUNY professor emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies, attacked the veracity of the play in regards to the real events that took place aboard the passenger ship in 1985.
Chesler cited the terrorist characters’ proclamation of themselves as “men with ideas [performing] an action of liberation.” But Chesler rebuffed this depiction with a list of atrocities committed by the real life terrorists, including the forcing of hostages to handle live grenades, the torture of cancer-stricken Marion Klinghoffer, and the violent murder of her husband Leon and disposal of his body into the ocean.
Chesler and fellow academic Dahn Hiuni, playwright and School of Visual Arts professor, broke down the opera’s structure to further illustrate Adams’ empathy with his terrorist characters by breaking down the play structurally. Chesler compared the 12 arias granted the terrorist characters to the five afforded their Jewish counterparts — a piece of data backed up by Hiuni’s assertion that “Singing makes people sympathetic.”
Furthermore, Hiuni took issue with the opera’s introduction, which is handed (as a “deliberate choice”) almost exclusively to the terrorist characters. He asked, “Why wouldn’t [the play] start with Klinghoffer’s voice?”
Hiuni went on to highlight the sensitive timing of the opera, coming to life within six years of the terrorist attack. Positing that the event did not receive the reverence American culture affords to travesties of its kind, Hiuni asked, “When would it be okay to do the 9/11 opera? When would it be okay to do the James Foley beheading opera?”
Comparisons like these found their way into various facets of the conversation, each used to mark the speakers’ concerns about the absence of gravity in regards to the public’s view on Jewish defamation.
‘When would it be okay to do the 9/11 opera? When would it be okay to do the James Foley beheading opera?’
World Jewish Congress executive director Betty Ehrenberg recalled New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s outrage over the Brooklyn Museum’s display of photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” — the sort of outrage she failed to find meeting the Met’s upcoming production.
Emboldening the severity of the issues detailed by the panel, South Sudanese human rights activist Simon Deng discussed his own experiences with oppression, and his concerns over a similar situation befalling the Jewish people.
The speakers rounded out the discussion with a call to arms to fight back against the ambivalence with which productions of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and works of its ilk, are welcomed. Commentary magazine senior online editor Jonathan Tobin instigated his audience to “never shut up” about issues like these, while Ehrenberg stressed the need for operas about figures of Zionistic sympathy (pointing out Deng, who himself escaped terrorist wrath in Sudan, as an example).
Capping the line of thought, Boteach offered his own take on how to handle the spread of anti-Semitism.
“Stop believing that hatred is immoral,” he said, pointing to the “truly wicked” deeds of those driving the war against the Jewish population.
“If that’s not evil,” Boteach said of the crimes committed by the slaughterers of Leon Klinghoffer, and all those engaged in terrorist activity worldwide, “then the word has no meaning.”