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Was the ‘Klinghoffer’ Premiere an ‘Operatic Kristallnacht’?

Dispatch from the scene at—and in—Lincoln Center Monday night

Judith Miller
October 23, 2014
A protestor holds a sign outside the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center on opening night of the opera, 'The Death of Klinghoffer' on October 20, 2014 in New York City. (Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)
A protestor holds a sign outside the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center on opening night of the opera, 'The Death of Klinghoffer' on October 20, 2014 in New York City. (Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)

You don’t have to be Jewish or know anything about opera to have an opinion about whether Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb should have had his head examined for staging a new production of The Death of Klinghoffer. Judging by the outpouring of reaction to the opera’s performance Monday night, few New Yorkers, Jewish or goyish, seemed indifferent to John Adams’s 1991 opera about the 1985 hijacking, by Palestinians, of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, and their murder of a 69-year old, wheel-chair-bound passenger.

Inside and outside the performance hall, protesters railed against what the Zionist Organization of America dubbed, in Holocaust hyperbole, an “operatic Kristallnacht.” Across the street from Lincoln Center, 400 people rallied, including opera buff Rudy Giuliani, U.S. representatives Peter King, and Carolyn Maloney of New York, Borough President Melinda Katz, former attorney general Michael Mukasey, Ron Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and former governor David Paterson. They joined the ZOA, the Anti-Defamation League, members of the Klinghoffer family, and other activists, who for months tried to persuade Gelb to cancel Klinghoffer, a production financed by an anonymous donor and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. A succession of speakers condemned Gelb’s decision to mount a new production of the opera, which was first performed in Brussels in 1991. Protesters shouted “Shame on Gelb” and “Make Art, Not Hate”; others sat in what was called a “caravan of wheelchairs,” wearing signs saying: “I am Leon Klinghoffer.”

Threats prompted a large uniformed and plain-clothes police presence outside and inside the hall, which had been swept for bombs, one cop said. Police stood guard at strategic locations throughout the vast complex. The tunnel linking the subway to Lincoln Center was closed, and checks of bags and briefcases, normally a haphazard affair, were thorough. Eve Epstein, a writer and opera lover who attended the opening but sees the work as anti-Semitic—a political “snuff opera,” as she has written, and an “apologia for terrorism set to music”—said that several protesters wearing yellow stars told her that they were turned away despite having purchased tickets. But Peter Clark, press director for the Met, said that no ticket holders were barred.

Inside, where the curtain rose 10 minutes late—rare for the Met—at least one man was removed by the police and charged with “disorderly conduct” for repeatedly shouting from the mezzanine, during the performance, “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.” The hall was not full, a rarity for the New York debut of a new production. Despite the Met’s selling tickets as cheaply as $25 and a web advertising campaign urging opera buffs to “see it, then decide,” there were empty seats. The Met described ticket sales for the remaining performances as “brisk,” but its spokesman said it never releases box office sales, production costs, or information about whether a production is breaking even, which most do not. If attendance was lower than usual Monday night, patrons made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers. Champions of the opera loudly shushed those who booed or shouted to distract the singers, and they applauded and cheered conductor David Robertson even before the opera began.

So how was the opera?

Many of the protesters admitted that they had never seen it—and said they wouldn’t. If they had, some might have been less upset. I did not find Klinghoffer anti-Semitic. Rather, it is often boring and weirdly undramatic, particularly its first act. Even the impressive set by Tom Pye, the powerful staging by director Tom Morris and superb singing (particularly by Paulo Szot as the Captain, Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer, Alan Opie as Klinghoffer, and Ryan Speedo Green as the terrorist Rambo) could not salvage the opera’s endless, tedious recitatives. The libretto by Alice Goodman, a Jewish-born convert to Christianity and now an Anglican priest, which some critics have praised as poetic and lyrical, is awful. An aria about seagulls and other birds is moronic.

There is a good case that the creators’ sympathies lie with the Palestinians. As the psychologist and feminist Phyllis Chesler has complained, Goodman and Adams have given the Palestinians most of the best lines. The opera opens, for instance, with a haunting “Chorus of the exiled Palestinians.” “My father’s house was razed / in nineteen forty-eight / when the Israelis passed / Over our street.” Compare this to the lament of the “Chorus of the Exiled Jews” who kvetch about having to leave their homes without luggage: “When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left.” There is no mention of the six million victims of the Holocaust, or the hate which drove Jews from their ancestral homes into exile and to Palestine. The terrorists who seize the ship sing of themselves as “soldiers fighting a war … men of ideals. We are not criminals.” The young terrorist who shoots Klinghoffer—from behind his wheelchair—is given an impressive ballet.

But the one openly anti-Semitic character, Rambo, is not celebrated. Rather, he spews hatred and racial stereotypes, and is obviously loathsome: “Wherever poor men / Are gathered they can / Find Jews getting fat,” and “America is one big Jew.” Moreover, the two most dramatic and moving arias are sung by the Klinghoffers. In one of the opera’s most dramatic moments, Leon Klinghoffer courageously rises from his wheelchair to denounce Rambo and those who have seized the ship. “You don’t give a shit,” he sings. “You just want to see people die … We’re human. We are / the kind of people / you like to kill.” Klinghoffer’s murder on stage is shocking. And Adams and Goodman give the opera’s last word to Marilyn Klinghoffer, whose moving closing aria makes clear, at least to this listener, that her husband’s murder is a vile, barbaric act.

The opera may be new to the Met, but it was performed without incident at Juilliard in 2009, at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011, and as recently as this March in Long Beach, California. The Met’s production debuted last year in London. So why, now, have American Jews fixated on it?

Perhaps the answer is partly generational. Young New York Jews tend to be more assertive than their more assimilationist parents about protesting what they perceive as works that, as attorney Alan Dershowitz wrote, “create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims.” The venue itself may also be provocative. The Met is not just any cultural institution, as journalist Seth Lipsky argues. It is an icon of American high culture. It was “bizarre,” he wrote, “to sit in an opera house in the middle of the city with the world’s second largest Jewish population and hear its performance greeted with a long ovation while the conductor and cast take their bows.” For many opera devotees, Peter Gelb’s decision to mount a new production of Klinghoffer at the Met institutionalizes it as part of its repertoire.

And current events themselves may have helped trigger Jewish fury. Throughout Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise. In Brussels, a Jewish Museum was attacked by a gunman, who killed four. In London, a leading supermarket removed kosher food from its shelves to avoid inciting riots. On American campuses, speakers have been disinvited for statements critical of militant Islam while defenders of Israel describe themselves as intellectually isolated and professionally marginalized. Today, John Adams’s opera, its critics say, recalls and reflects this new Judeophobia.

And the Met’s Peter Gelb is also partly to blame for the opera’s reception. After meetings with Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, which has been representing the wishes of the Klinghoffer daughters, the Met announced a compromise in June. It agreed for the first time ever to include in the opera’s playbill a “message” from Klinghoffer’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa claiming that the opera “rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.” While the Met was committed to staging the opera’s eight scheduled performances, Gelb told The New York Times that after almost “unimaginable pressure” from some Jewish groups, he was cancelling the Met’s global simulcasts in 2,000 theaters and 65 countries, as well as a free radio broadcast. Eve Epstein called the decision “a clear admission of the opera’s potential to spread hatred.” Gelb’s compromise undercut his moral defense of the opera on grounds of artistic freedom, as well as his claim that the work is not anti-Semitic. The decision is a Solomonic call that has satisfied neither side. Its subtext, moreover, is equally odious: While those who attend the Met are sophisticated enough to appreciate John Adams’s historically distorted explanation, if not justification, of Palestinian rage, the unwashed rubes of the American heartland, and bigots at home and abroad, might fail to appreciate so subtle a distinction.

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.