Is it worth it?: The MET’s Opera “The Death of Klinghoffer”

Approximately one year from now will be the 30th year since Leon Klinghoffer was killed in a terrorist attack.   Klinghoffer was a victim of the 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking, which was the subject matter of one the New York Metropolitan Opera’s more recent productions, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

The opera was based on the hijacking of the cruise ship which occurred on October 7th 1985, where four terrorists, representing the Palestinian Liberation Front (or the PLF) took over the ship at gunpoint.  Very similar to conflicts at large today, the motivation behind the hijacking was linked with the conflict between the Nation of Israel and the Palestinian People.  Specifically, the conditions of the hijacking were the release of their Palestinian countrymen who were at the time prisoners within an Israeli prison.  After the men took over the vessel off the coast of Egypt, they redirected it towards Syria where they hoped to dock, to continue with their negotiation.  However, they were denied permission to dock, and in response the men shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer.  Klinghoffer was a 69-year old, handicapped, Brooklyn native, Jewish American man, who booked the cruise with his wife Marilyn, to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.  He was also the father to two daughters, Lisa and Ilsa.  After the men shot Klinghoffer they threw his body over the side of the ship.  Once word of the murder was received by Mrs. Klinghoffer, she fought back against the men who took her husband’s life in the only way she could, by publicizing the story of her husband’s murder.  Her and her two daughters formed the “The Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League.”   Leon had become a symbol against terrorism worldwide.

Photo of Composer John Adams Source: Wikipedia

Fast forwarding a few years into the future, theatre director Peter Sellars, with the help several other well-renowned operatic minds, decided to take the story of Klinghoffer and readapt it, to create The Death of Klinghoffer (1991).  In the creation of this project, Sellars collaborated with composer John Adams, who was the brains behind the musical numbers of several other operas based off of historical events, such as Doctor Atomic (2005) and Nixon in China (1978).  Alice Goodman, who has often collaborated with John Adams in several of his pieces, was responsible for the libretti of The Death of Klinghoffer.  The first performance of the opera was in Brussels in March of 1991, and it came to the United States later that year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Since its birth, the opera has received opposition from outraged protesters who have made anti-Semitic and pro-terrorism claims against the opera.  One of the most vocal protest organizations in opposition of the opera is “The Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League.” Klinghoffer’s two daughters, Lisa and Ilsa have made statements against the production.  They said that while they are supporters of the arts, they believed that the opera, “rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father”.

From 1991 onward, the opera has had sporadic performances around the world, often met with varying levels of opposition.  Last month, however, The Death of Klinghoffer received a production from the Metropolitan Opera, at the will of the MET’s General Manager Peter Gelb.   The play was picked up for very few performances; however, word often spreads quickly in New York City, and as the city was catching word of the MET’s production of Klinghoffer, it wasn’t long before New York City’s Jewish community was up in arms against its production.  The local news highlighted concerns about impending protests from those who oppose what it stands for.  The broadcast stated the place and time of the first production of the opera, and the time which there was to be a protest.  Before the broadcast, I had never heard specifically of the opera; however, seeing that the protest had enough recognition to be realized by a national news station, I was interested to see what about the opera was upsetting the Jewish community.

Before I further explain my investigation into this controversy, I believe that I should make it clear that I am not Jewish.  In fact, I am not religious, so I did not have any underlying religious biases, before conducting my investigation of this protest.  However, I wanted to observe both sides of the issue.  First, I wanted to understand the protestors; I thought that before I would even try to analyze this opera, I needed to be briefed on what about the opera was so offensive.  I would try to submerge myself in their frustration to gain a lens through which I could observe the opera.  Additionally, I believed that understanding the opposition to the opera would help me to identify what I was looking for.  Not being Jewish, some material could have gone “over my head” during the performance, if it wasn’t explained to me prior to my viewing. After gaining all of the insight, I wanted to see the show for myself.  To begin an analysis to see whether the artistic value of the opera was worth the controversy.   In addition, I wanted to observe what the opera was doing to the image of Muslims, and others in the Middle East.  As militant groups have such a large presence in the media, like ISIS beheading western journalists like James Foley, was this opera doing something to alleviate the derogatory image of Muslims as terrorists? Or was this opera a powder keg, with inflammatory repercussions that outweigh its artistic value?

I went to the protest on the opening night of the production (Oct. 20th).  My initial impression, upon arriving within the area of the MET, was that I underestimated the scope of the protest.  Even though I heard about it on the news, I still didn’t believe that so many would be present to demonstrate against the opera.  Upon moving closer into the heart of the protest, I saw demonstrative signs on display and I began to hear some of the vocal opposition.  It reminded me of walking into a dog pit; the people were speaking (sometimes with reporters, sometimes in just conversation with other protesters with fire and tenacity. The signs I saw read things like that the opera “Glorifies Terrorism,” “Cancel Racist Opera Insult to the Arts.” Many of the signs were targeted towards MET general manager Peter Gelb, calling for him to be fired, calling him an anti-Semite, and questioning whether he was taking money from terrorists.  All pretty extreme accusations. One interesting piece of the protest was the symbol of the wheelchairs, present in large numbers at the protest.  They were meant to symbolize Leon Klinghoffer, who was confined to a wheelchair, and in the bigger picture, was a symbol against discrimination, and terrorism.

This was one of the many  posters which displays the anger of the protesters with the opera, and the MET's General Manager Peter Gelb.

This was one of the many posters which displays the anger of the protesters with the opera, and the MET’s General Manager Peter Gelb.

I took the opportunity to talk to a few of the protesters about some basic views which they had on the opera.  Examples of questions I asked were, “Why were you so upset with the opera?”  This was an obvious mistake, for these people were so infuriated with the production, that to even question why they were offended, seemed offensive.   I decided to change up my strategy then, and ask my question a little differently than by saying, “If you had to choose one characteristic of the production that made you most upset, what would that be?” This question was much more easily answered. I took note of the responses I received because I wanted to see for myself whether those aspects were demonstrated in the production.  The people told me that the libretto of the production was “unnecessarily anti-Semitic,” going beyond a realistic context.  However, the most dominant opposition to the production was that it “humanized” terrorism.  I was told that the production portrayed the four terrorists as the victims in The Death of Klinghoffer, and how their insidious agenda was not entirely their fault.  This accusation confused me the most.  After being submerged in the dispute against the production for about an hour and a half, it was hard not to feel a bit of a grievance against the opera.  However, now I needed to see the opera for myself and analyze the piece as an observer, looking in, to see what was fueling this fire.

I saw the performance on the evening of the 29th of October.  My attitude that evening was that this opera was going to be delightful way to bring an end to my day.  My mind was becoming relaxed.  Upon entering the theatre, however, I saw that there was still people outside of the MET protesting this performance of Klinghoffer.   This provided me with a reminder that I was on an analytical mission to decide whether the value of the Klinghoffer as a piece of art outweighed its offenses. The first thing during the performance that struck me was the libretto, as the terrorists were commandeering the Achille Lauro, the performers were singing songs with derogatory lyrics at both the Jews and the Americans on the ship.  It is hard to recall specific quotes from the performance; however, from what I can recall, the terrorists were speaking of the Jews as fat, greedy, and responsible for the exploitation and destruction of the Palestinian peoples.  One quote I recall was one of the men saying that, “America is one big Jew,” as he spoke of the American way of life.

A Veteran protesting the MET’s opera “Death of Klinghoffer”

Moreover, on the topic of the libretto, towards the middle of the opera, as the terrorists had complete control of the ship, the performer responsible for Leon Klinghoffer, portrayed by actor Alan Opie, was in a heated dialogue with one of the terrorists.  I noticed that the words spoken by Klinghoffer were very violent and explicit.  This made me question Alice Goodman’s position on the controversy.  Although, in Leon’s position, it seemed justified being that he and his wife were being threatened by terrorist. To me it still seemed that Goodman didn’t hold back in this dialogue.  Klinghoffer made accusations at the men, calling them responsible for some of the other terrorist-related controversies closely linked to that time.  One quote that stuck me was when Klinghoffer stated, “You poured gasoline over women in Tel Aviv, and burned them alive” (this is probably not exact, as I am recalling from memory).  I believe that this highlighted a point Goodman was trying to make, that how the conflicts which are still prevalent today between both the Israelis and Palestinians harbors a mutual hatred.

Up to this point in the opera, however, I was still conflicted in my views, because just from being informed of current events, it is true that there is a clear mutual dislike between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  This dialogue exchange between both the terrorist and Klinghoffer seemed to have historical accuracy.  It wasn’t until I reached the point in the opera when one of the terrorists was preparing to shoot Klinghoffer, that I was a little confused by the direction of the piece.  The terrorist in charge of the hijacking gave a younger, more innocent-looking terrorist the responsibility of killing Leon Klinghoffer.  Before he went along with his deed, it appeared that he was in a moral conundrum about killing Klinghoffer.  He was writhing on the ground, as a woman was speaking on his behalf, saying how in doing his deed he would “leap like a fountain into the mind of God”.  His movements on the ground reminded me of someone overwhelmed with pain.  It was as if the choreography was trying to display a message that the terrorist knew that he was doing “God’s work” in killing Klinghoffer, but as a human being, it pained him to take a life.  This humanizing aspect of the terrorists was confusing to me, and it was apparent that this scene was one was likely responsible for the Jewish community’s objection to the opera.  I didn’t understand why Adams and Goodman would try to dissect the terrorist’s motivations, and try to reinterpret them as if they were their own.  How can Adams and Goodman assume the responsibility to understand the motivations of such a vile act?  I’m not saying that in certain regions of the world, people are forced into lifestyles which tears away at their natural sense of morality and replace them with something ugly.  But to me, I could see why in The Death of Klinghoffer, it could be so dangerous to try to humanize this instance of murder and terrorism.  The message that terrorists are victims to the constructs that shape their lives creates an even greater message, which acts to nullify the blame of all acts of terror worldwide.

Despite that puzzling aspect of the performance, I don’t want to leave out that I enjoyed the piece.  The performances of the actors, paired with the dialogue of Goodman, and the music pieces of Adams, were both meaningful and satisfying to the ear.  My favorite scene of the performance was towards the end, with one of Marilyn Klinghoffer’s dialogues, prior to her husband’s death. Unaware that her husband was about to be shot, the captain tried to usher Mrs. Klinghoffer back to her room. As he was escorting her, she essentially went on a rant, first wondering about the location of her husband, and then digressed to talk about hip replacements.  Now, like Mrs. Klinghoffer, my family is from New York City as well, and from conversations with them, the word choice of Mrs. Klinghoffer, scribed by Goodman, I believe, was an accurate depiction of the quintessential New York-native mother.  I greatly appreciated this.

Unfortunately, I left The Death of Klinghoffer rather torn.  I did understand that there were themes of the performance that were confusing and offensive, but the music, and historical accuracy and drama of the dialogue were compelling at the same time.   It was undeniably valuable to gain the lens of the protesters before seeing the performance for myself.  This experience gave me a briefing on what I needed to keep my eyes out for.  With that being said, a few things, which I was warned about during the protest may had gone over my head.  I believe that this was because the “offense” didn’t create a mental “red flag” in my head, jeopardizing my opinion of the piece.  Again, I want it to be clear that I am no authority to say whether certain themes were, or were not, offensive.  I am not a religious person, nor have I ever been confronted with terrorism. I have certainly never been involved in the conflicts occurring between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  However, unlike most “opera-goers,” I had a chance to see the effects that the offenses of this production had.  Even though the last performance of The Death of Klinghoffer at the MET has already passed, I doubt this opera is at the end of its life.  Wherever this opera moves to next, I am sure this question will follow it close behind: “Is it worth it?”

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