As passengers are blinded and gagged on the deck of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, a Palestinian hijacker pulls a paralyzed man from his wheelchair and puts a grenade in his hand to frighten him.
“Wherever poor men/are gathered they can/Find Jews getting fat,” the hijacker barks. His victim, the character Leon Klinghoffer, begs his tormenter in vain to show his humanity, unlike the terrorists who “pour gasoline/over women/passengers on/The bus to Tel Aviv/And burn them alive.”
At the opening night of The Death of Klinghoffer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Monday, protesters familiar with the opera, and especially these lines, campaigned in the streets, hoping to halt the Met’s production as police officers manned the Met’s historic, grand staircase.
It was the sort of marketing melee you couldn’t pay for: As tensions flared in the Middle East and anti-Semitism was on the rise all over the world, the Metropolitan Opera announced this production. As artists and opera lovers were excited by a revival of one of the 20th century’s most haunting works, Jewish groups were up in arms.
The show has rarely been performed since its controversial first run in the 1990s. But in the 2010s, it began to find new life, with stagings at St. Louis Opera Theater and in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this year. In 2012 Tom Morris staged the opera at the English National Opera to little controversy, the same staging that is opening in New York.
Composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman conceived the genre of political opera in their 1987 work Nixon in China, establishing a theatrical form they call “CNN Opera,” designed to look beyond the media construct of current affairs. “Whether it’s about suicide bombers or 9/11 or any of these events that have happened to America, the question that is not allowed to be asked to this day is ‘Why would people do this?’ “ explained director Peter Sellars in the book John Adams Reader. “That’s the question, of course, that drama asks.”
Klinghoffer was produced in 1991 by five international opera companies and houses, premiering in Belgium to lukewarm reviews. So when it moved to co-producer Brooklyn Academy of Music later that year, nothing had prepared them for how severe the backlash was. Productions of the show later in the run were canceled and Jewish librettist Alice Goodman was blacklisted and never wrote again. She’s now a church rector.
Among the most vocal opponents of the work have been Klinghoffer’s daughters Ilsa and Lisa, who have said the work “presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and senseless murder of an American Jew.” A statement by the daughters appears in every program at the opera. (An op-ed by the sisters can be found on Page 25.)
Tom Morris’ staging of the opera could not be more different than the original staging in 1991. But back in 1991, it was all about abstracts: the set was bare steel rigging, the entire cast dressed in Lily Pulitzer pink and green. Most characters sang into video cameras, all as disconnected monologues as strange dances manifested their words. Klinghoffer himself is fragmented between a man sitting in a wheelchair and another man who sings his role. The staging really highlights how little the Klinghoffers actually really do in the show.
The controversial scenes Morris leaves in are the chorus of exiled Palestinians and Jews. Played far more literally than the original, they focus on actual groups of Palestinians and Jews readying for war and planting trees respectively. The Palestinian chorus is cast as shadows and ghouls that plague the mind of eventual assassin Omar, contorting him into his final deed. The Jewish chorus, meanwhile, serves a role of mourning and burial. The show also places snippets of history and context on the back wall, a facsimile of similar structures on the West Bank. In the prologue and intermission, historical context is also offered.
Omri Ceren, managing director for press and strategy at The Israel Project, described the show in an interview as “high-brow agit-prop.” Ceren believes that attempts to pick apart the show’s details are missing the larger point. “The danger here,” Ceren said, “is the importation of a particularly ugly kind of anti-Israel ideology into high art.” He noted how opera is a problematic choice of art form due to its history with anti-Semitism. “We’re not that far away from Wagner being mobilized in the cause of anti-Jewish discrimination,” he said.
Last year, a staging of Wagner’s Tannhauser in Germany was turned into a concert performance after audience members were so shocked by its use of Holocaust imagery that they needed medical attention.
In recent weeks, this Klinghoffer has earned many more Jewish detractors.
On Sept. 22, American Jewish leaders disseminated an open letter to Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. The letter, signed by members of the president of the Orthodox Union, leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, National Council of Young Israel, among others, questions Gelb’s “decision to stage this opera in New York at this time.” The letter writers call bits of the opera “gravely inappropriate,” and accuse it of running the risk of legitimizing acts of terror, “which is particularly sensitive now as anti-Jewish attacks and expressions of hatred against Jews have reached frightening levels around the globe, and innocent American journalists have been cruelly beheaded by radical Islamists.”
From Washington, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) issued the following statement Tuesday in support of the protesters:
“It is hard to stay silent when the killing of an innocent man has been trivialized and exploited. The men who murdered Leon Klinghoffer were terrorists working to destroy Israel, and to undermine any hopes for peace. It’s a disgrace that the Met has chosen to feature an opera with such vile undertones, particularly given the rising current of anti-Semitism across the globe.”
Met management was surprised at the level of condemnation this production has earned. Gelb, who is Jewish, canceled a scheduled simulcast of the production at movie theaters, citing “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.”
Indeed, Lenore Schultz, a New York City resident who protested the opera’s opening night, argued that “this opera will incite anti-Semitism worldwide. Who needs that,” she asked. Living across the street from the Met enabled Schultz to attend the opera every year since 1966. “I won’t go at all this season,” she said. “I’m very disappointed.” Schultz added: “You wouldn’t see an opera about Martin Luther King’s murder. What’s next? An opera about ISIS beheading James Foley?”
The Anti-Defamation League acknowledged the steps Gelb took to cancel the simulcast and resisted the call for the Met to cancel the live production in New York. In a press release, the ADL wrote “that 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.”
A production of the opera at the Guggenheim was also canceled this year for “scheduling reasons.” But this has not mollified protesters who believe the opera should not be performed at all. There have been numerous protests outside the Metropolitan Opera since the season opened in late September. The protesters are divided into two main groups: those who oppose the opera on the grounds that it is anti-Semitic, and those who oppose it for fear it may incite terrorism.
The opera’s opening night, Oct, 20, was New York’s first crisp fall day of the season. At around 4 p.m., some 1,000 protesters gathered on Broadway to protest, 100 of these sitting in wheelchairs and holding signs which read “I am Leon Klinghoffer.”
The Zionist Organization of America, which spearheaded the wheelchair protest, handed out fliers at the protest demanding to know who funded the production, a question which the Met has not yet answered.
Some of the Met’s more recent collaborators were unhappy with the cancellation of the simulcast. Nico Muhly, composer of Two Boys, praised the opera as “one of the most … complicated, and wrenching operas I can think of.”
Two Boys’ librettist, Craig Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the time isn’t right for the Met to revive the production. “The Death of Klinghoffer is a complex, melodic, upsetting, heart-rending work – more like a painting, I think, than a drama,” he said in an email. “I do not find the Jewish characters caricatures nor do I find the Palestinian characters more compassionately drawn than all the others. But … I do not think that this is a conversation that can really be had while Israel’s existence is, in actuality, at stake.”
Sidney Schwartz, a New York City resident said that better timing won’t change the fact that the opera’s libretto “humanizes the terrorists” and “suggests that maybe there’s some sort of justification for their actions.”
Protesters with similar feelings boarded buses in Washington, Philadelphia, Connecticut, New Jersey and Long Island bound for Manhattan’s Upper West Side Monday. Jack Sullivan, a Philadelphia resident, believed the opera “crossed the line between freedom of speech and hate.” He tried to explain through an analogy: “Why not put on an opera about James Earl Ray who killed Martin Luther King? Or the Romans who killed Jesus? They had their reasons for killing, too, why not produce an opera about them?”
Inside the opera house, the protests didn’t stop when the lights went out. The first boos came at the end of the chorus of exiled Palestinians, whereupon audience members bellowed at the protesters to shut up. At the end of the first scene, just before the ocean chorus, someone began chanting “the murder of Klinghoffer will not be forgiven.” While stewards streaked through the darkness to find the heckler, the conductor paused the musicians and the actor playing Omar stood frozen at the front of the stage. A woman stood in the back of the orchestra section. “Nobody is trying to forgive it,” she cried.
As the opera ended Monday, there was a cry of anger from someone in the audience. But it was drowned out by the sounds of sobs and applause.