NEW YORK – Protesters outside the New York Metropolitan Opera’s opening of the controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” stood across the street from Manhattan’s vaunted Lincoln Center, whose usually-crowded plaza was empty but for the many police officers milling about inside long stretches of metal barricades.
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Opera-goers had to show a ticket for Monday night’s premier to gain passage through the barrier, which stretched along the sidewalk for a block on either side of Lincoln Center, where security was unusually tight.
The Monday night protest against the opera was attended by 3,000 people, said Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a wealth manager and board member of several Jewish organizations, who helped organize the effort and served as its master of ceremonies. “When the Metropolitan Opera incites violence you can’t know what will happen,” Wiesenfeld said at the protest. “Anything that happens, that has besmirched this Metropolitan Opera, and besmirched Lincoln Center, is to be laid at the foot of Peter Gelb,” he added, referring to the general manager of the storied opera house.
The 1991 opera, by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, portrays the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestine Liberation Front terrorists, who demanded the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. They then murdered wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish New Yorker, by shooting him in the head and chest, dumping his body and wheelchair over the side of the ship. The opera had its worldwide debut in Brussels, and then its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1991. Performances slated to take place in Boston and elsewhere shortly after 9/11 were cancelled.
Klinghoffer’s daughters, Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer, have vociferously objected to the opera, which they have call a “perversion” of their father’s murder that “attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.” A program note from them was distributed to those attending the Met Opera production.
Protesters Monday included many holding up signs and 100 who sat in rented wheelchairs lined up along the edge of Lincoln Center’s plaza while holding placards reading “I am Leon Klinghoffer.”
Among the many speakers were former N.Y.C Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former New York State Governor David Patterson, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and both Democratic and Republican members of Congress from New York.
The controversial opera has prompted an extraordinary amount of protest in recent months from groups ranging from the Anti-Defamation League and New York Jewish Community Relations Council to the more right-wing organizations co-sponsoring Monday’s protest. Those groups included the Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Stand With Us.
The ADL held discussions with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb that resulted, in June, in the Met Opera’s cancellation of its planned simulcast to 2,000 theaters in 66 countries. The Jewish organization says that it does not consider the opera anti-Semitic and Gelb said, at that time, that he and board members had received hundreds of angry emails and phone calls “in an organized campaign.” That effort was coordinated by some of the same groups, including JCC Watch, that sponsored Monday’s protest.
The Met-ADL settlement displeased Wiesenfeld, a member of the board of directors of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and treasurer of the American section of the World Jewish Congress, he said at the protest and in an interview afterward.
“The ADL made an arrangement they had no right to make,” Wiesenfeld told Haaretz after the Klinghoffer opera’s first act, which he attended after the protest. “We find this unacceptable and outrageous,” said Wiesenfeld, echoing remarks he made during the demonstration. “Gelb used the ADL’s hechsher to perform the opera. If he didn’t have the ADL saying it was okay he may have stopped [the production] early on.”
Protest took place inside the Metropolitan Opera theater as well. A handful of people booed at various quiet moments in the first act and someone yelled “the murder of Klinghoffer will not be forgiven!” said Ari Mandel, a New York University student who decided to make “The Death of Klinghoffer” his first opera experience. The man was arrested during the intermission on charges of disorderly conduct, The New York Times reported.
He and others who booed were quickly escorted out of the opera hall by security, Mandel said. Mandel, who spoke with Haaretz during the intermission, said that he found the music “haunting and jarring."
Noah Levine was at the protest with a friend who was visiting from upstate New York. He had cancelled their dinner plans in order to attend the rally, he said. “Dinner can be rescheduled but this can’t.”
One security guard, who said he’s worked at Lincoln Center for 23 years, said it was by far the biggest protest and tightest security he’s ever seen.
The New York JCRC held a concurrent screening of the 1990 made-for-television movie “Voyage of Terror: An Accurate Portrayal of the Murder of Leon Klinghoffer” at the nearby JCC of the Upper West Side following the protest. About 80 people went, said Hindy Poupko, managing director of the JCRC, which timed it “so rally-goers could attend.”
First-time opera-goer Mandel said of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” during the intermission, “people have been saying [the opera] is either glorifying or excusing terrorism. It’s not doing any of that. Briefly, at the very beginning the opening scene it shows Palestinians giving a very simple and basic rundown of Palestinian grievances. That’s followed by an almost identical scene of Israelis doing something similar. It’s supposed to be a mirror image. Then it goes on to portray the story and they don’t soften the blow. They’re not trying to make the terrorists look like anything other than what they are,” Mandel said.
Mandel walked through the protest before the opera began. “The protestors are doing their shtick like ‘oh my God it’s an operatic Kristallnacht,’" Mandel said. “Their over-the-top rhetoric and crying wolf is so tiresome and counterproductive it makes me want to go to things like this. They should just stop whining already,” he added.
Wiesenfeld, predictably, had a totally different take. Given a ticket by someone who has a season subscription to the Met but didn’t want to go, the money manager left after the first act. “It was absolutely unquestionably anti-Semitic and glorifies the terrorists,” Wiesenfeld told Haaretz during the intermission. “We walked out when they started to compare the Warsaw ghetto to the Palestinians. It was disgusting.”