John Adams and Alice Goodman’s 1991 opera explores the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew who was killed during the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. The Metropolitan Opera’ new staging of the play opened on Monday night, but long before the curtain was drawn, the drama had already begun, as the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations (and some guy named Rudy Giuliani) protested the Met’s decision to stage a show that they claim has anti-Semitic overtones and tries to justify an act of terrorism:
Angry protesters gathered across from the Met on the opening night of the opera season last month; a pair of public talks with members of the “Klinghoffer” creative team were quietly called off; and Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said that he had received threats related to the production. He recently sent an email to the opera’s cast expressing regret that they had been subject to “Internet harassment” and defending the work from its critics, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times. Many Jewish leaders, including liberals and conservatives, are finding themselves drawn into the debate. The Met’s attempts to calm things by canceling a planned transmission of the opera to movie theaters around the world this fall accomplished little — and may have fueled more criticism. Now “Klinghoffer” threatens to become the Met’s most controversial company premiere since 1907, when Strauss’s “Salome” was deemed outrageous and banned for decades.
Alex Ross, vitally, reveals the hateful illiberalism of the opera’s prime critic:
The most aggressive rhetoric came from Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a money manager who has also worked as a political operative. A few years ago, Wiesenfeld won notoriety for seeking, unsuccessfully, to deny the playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, on account of Kushner’s criticisms of Israel. Wiesenfeld led the “Klinghoffer” rally, and he had much to say. “This is not art,” he thundered. “This is crap. This is detritus. This is garbage.” He declared, as he did at an anti-“Klinghoffer” event last month, that the set should be burned. He made a cryptic joke to the effect that, if something were to happen to Gelb that night, the board of the Met would be the first suspects.
Burning the set?
Paul Berman, in his review of the opera, gets why it’s so controversial but doesn’t quite agree with the protesters:
I can see why, in gazing on what they have wrought, Adams and his librettist must feel that, all in all, they have been badly misunderstood by their detractors, and that, in fact, they have presented a subtle and nuanced picture, not romantic, not apologetic, but intent on showing why, at times, decent people do sometimes sink into degraded hatreds and gratuitous violence.
And yet, in regard to seeking out everyone’s humanity, The Death of Klinghoffer seems to me to run aground on a philosophical shoal. Everything in the opera hangs on the validity of the “root cause” explanation—on the assumption that Palestinian terrorism and violence result from the dispossession of 1948, which means that reasonable or “human” traits attach to even the ugliest aspects. But something in that assumption ought to be questioned. Many millions of people and entire ethnic and religious groups were displaced and exiled in the course of the turmoil that accompanied the end of World War II, and not all of those millions responded by forming terrorist movements, and this reality may suggest that something else, apart from suffering and dispossession, is required for terrorist crazies to emerge.
But Frank Rich rolls his eyes at the scandal, noting that the opera’s loudest critics haven’t even seen it:
Klinghoffer has zero anti-Semitism. It does have what Justin Davidson of New York has accurately described as a “clumsy libretto” — dramaturgically diffuse, often lyrically banal — though it is far more lucid in this gripping, beautifully sung Tom Morris production than it was in Peter Sellars’s original at BAM. Not for a second does the opera present the terrorists as anything other than cold-blooded killers — in Adams’s score and the staging as well as in words — and not for a second does your heart fail to go out to their victims, led by Leon Klinghoffer. The performance ends with a wrenching solo by the widowed Marilyn Klinghoffer — “They should have killed me / I wanted to die” — and, as Alex Ross of The New Yorker tweeted Monday night, “In the end, the protest failed completely. Marilyn Klinghoffer had the final word, and John Adams received a huge ovation.”
Moustafa Bayoumi argues that the opera is problematic, but not for the reasons the ADL asserts:
Palestinian history in Klinghoffer is staged as Muslim only – and only as fundamentalist Muslim, which is wrong and dangerous. The group that carried out the Achille Lauro operation, the Palestinian Liberation Front, was a Marxist-Leninist faction, an offshoot (twice removed) of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was led by the Christian Palestinian George Habash. But if you watched Klinghoffer, you’d have no idea Marxist Palestinians even existed, or that Christian Palestinians were at the forefront of much of the Palestinian national movement. … Klinghoffer wants to collapse the complexities of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians into a timeless religious battle between Muslims and Jews.
Adam Shatz is on the same page:
[Y]ou could make the case that if The Death of Klinghoffer caricatures anyone, it’s Palestinians, not Jews. The ‘Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ that opens the opera features a group in Afghan-style clothes, evoking the vanished paradise of pre-1948 Palestine and the Nakba that robbed them of their land and future. Dressed in black and virtually indistinguishable, they’re designated mourners of Palestine, an undifferentiated mass united in suffering and thirsty for revenge. The women are all covered in full abayas, which is unusual among Palestinian women today, and was even more unusual in 1985.