Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman) and Jesse Kovarsky (Omar) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Met Opera premiere of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer

Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Paulo Szot (Captain), and Sean Panikkar (Molqi) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Paulo Szot (Captain), and Sean Panikkar (Molqi) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Monday, October 20 marked the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s highly anticipated production of The Death of Klinghoffer, with a score by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman. The Met’s production has been dripping with controversy and allegations that the opera is anti-Semitic, which led to the cancellation of the international simulcast of the opera. Whether you agree or disagree with these claims, there is no denying that the Met’s production was stunning.

Klinghoffer tells the story of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by the Palestinian Liberation Front. The hijacking resulted in the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish American passenger, whose body was thrown overboard after being shot by the terrorists. Originally premiered in 1991, the opera was also made into a film version in 2003.

Klinghoffer: The Met Premiere

Tom Morris’ production of Klinghoffer is phenomenal. In addition to Morris’s brilliant use of sets and staging, he incorporates projections of text and photos that provide more context to Klinghoffer’s oratorio style. The projections also help elicit a greater emotional response from the audience to what is happening on stage, the end of act one serving as a prime example. Morris’s production manages to take Adams’ music and Goodman’s text and spin it into an even more powerful narrative.

Klinghoffer’s cast also supports the production. The performances by Paulo Szot (The Captain) and Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer) are particular standouts. However, Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman) and Michaela Martens both steal moments of the show, Lahyani during the Desert Chorus just before the murder of Klinghoffer and Martens in the final scene of the opera where she learns of her husband’s fate. Both women do justice to Adams’ beautifully set text amidst his signature orchestrational style, providing stellar performances in their powerful roles.

Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman) and Jesse Kovarsky (Omar) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman) and Jesse Kovarsky (Omar) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Despite both a formidable production and performance, the opera repeatedly faced outbursts from protestors in the audience. All interjections from the protestors were met by shouts and responses from supporters of the opera, and by the second act most of the protestor activity had died down. It is possible many protestors left after the first act, as the theater, which was nearly full when the curtain rose for the first act, was dotted with many more empty seats when the second act began.

Interruptions and protests aside, the Met’s production of Klinghoffer is incredibly powerful and moving. If you see just one opera this fall, it should be Klinghoffer.

Klinghoffer: The Controversy

Since the first performances of Klinghoffer, the opera has been plagued with controversy and condemned by some—including Klinghoffer’s daughters shortly after the 1991 premiere—as anti-Semitic. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a performance of excerpts from the opera. In 2009, a performance of the opera at Juilliard was met with resistance, prompting a statement from Juilliard’s president Joseph W. Polisi in defense of the production. In 2014, the opera has returned to New York City, again shrouded in a thick mist of controversy.

This time around, the controversy began in June when the Metropolitan Opera cancelled the live simulcast of Klinghoffer, which was to be broadcast internationally on November 15, 2014. In a press release regarding the cancellation, the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb said, “I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic, but 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.”

While Gelb’s contradictory opinion of the opera, with backing from the Anti-Defamation League, ultimately led to the decision to cancel Klinghoffer’s simulcast, Gelb did not cancel the physical production of Klinghoffer at the Met. This decision led to backlash from the opera’s opponents, leading several hundred to protest outside of the Met during the Met’s opening night in September. The protest featured supporters such as current state assemblyman and former New York Governor George E. Pataki. Some protestors, ironically calling to mind the language of terrorists in the opera, called for the opera’s set to be “burned to the ground.”

But of those who criticize the opera, how many have actually seen it? According to Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox, of the protestors she questioned at the Met’s opening night, nearly all of them said they had not seen the opera. In fact, Abraham H. Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, who had a key role in convincing Gelb to cancel to simulcast, admitted that he has never seen the opera. When asked about this fact, Foxman responded, “I don’t need to see it. I read the libretto and professionals at the ADL read it. [Klinghoffer’s] daughters saw it, and that is good enough for me; I accept their judgment.”

A scene from The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A scene from The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Out of context, it would be possible to interpret the libretto for Klinghoffer as anti-Semitic. For example, the lines “But wherever poor men/Are gathered they can/Find Jews getting fat” or “America/Is one big Jew” are clearly anti-Semitic. However, in context one must consider that the words are being sung by Palestinian terrorists and that these words do not represent the sentiments of the librettist or composer. Jews are not the enemy in the opera, despite how hard one may try to project that into the words being sung.

In fact, rather than demonized by the opera, Klinghoffer stands forth as its hero. He is an innocent casualty, killed by a conflict greater than himself. Klinghoffer is one of thousands who have needlessly died as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Klinghoffer’s death is, in both real life and the opera, a tragedy.

Shortly after Klinghoffer’s murder, the terrorists inform the Captain of their intention to kill another passenger. The Captain, who stands as the voice of reason throughout the opera, explains to the terrorists that through the murder of Klinghoffer they have made the world blind to their cause:

Another death, another sign
That the world will refuse to see.
You speak of failure? I would say
You did not fail until you killed.
Yesterday the entire world
Acknowledged the significance
Attaching to—let me not mince
Words—your disruption of this cruise.
You awakened their consciences
Which sleep secure now they have seen
Nothing that they might not have known.

By murdering Klinghoffer, the terrorists destroy the opportunity to voice their cause on an international platform with the possibility that people might actually listen. Instead, they continue the cycle of terror and death that has accompanied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since its inception.

By humanizing the terrorists, perhaps the opera’s opponents fear Klinghoffer glorifies their actions and their murder of Klinghoffer. If this is the basis of the criticism, it is misguided, for by refusing to give the terrorists a voice a key part of the conflict is missing; you cannot claim your side is right by refusing to let the other speak. But recognizing the cause may be legitimate, while the terrorist tactics are contemptible, does not make the opera anti-Semitic.

Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer) and Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer) and Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer) in The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The truth is that Klinghoffer paints a multidimensional picture of an incredibly complex issue. It’s impossible to label one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as bad and the other good, one as right and the other as wrong; it is not a binary action. It is simply not that easy, and Adams and Goodman recognize that in their opera. As Adams stated in a video on the Met’s web page for Klinghoffer, “Our opera tries to look at the terrorists and the passengers and see humanity in both of them, and for some people that’s an egregious mistake. I don’t feel it is. I feel that for all of the brutality and the moral wrong that they perpetrated in killing this man, they’re still human beings and there still has to be reasons why they did this act.”

It is a shame that Klinghoffer remains controversial, as it is truly a wonderful opera that everyone should make an effort to see. Unfortunately, it is difficult to convince those with set ideals that their beliefs are misinformed, and it is unlikely that the controversy surrounding Klinghoffer will end any time soon as a result. By cancelling the simulcast, Gelb gave Klinghoffer’s opponents the validation they needed to continue to believe that the opera is anti-Semitic. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Gelb has not only added fuel to the fire but also needlessly prevented this semi-recently composed American opera to be broadcast to thousands of people around the world. With Klinghoffer missing, the Met’s simulcast schedule for this season reinforces the stereotype that classical music and opera are genres limited to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Anti-Semites rejoice: Wagner is still being broadcast in December.

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