The general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Peter Gelb, was 18 years old when he had his baptism of fire, so to speak, at the bloody crossroads of politics and art. It was on a morning in 1972, when he was arriving for work at the offices of the impresario Sol Hurok. When the donors of the elevator opened on the 20th floor, he was met by a wall of flames.
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The elevator then went up a bit higher. Gelb pried the doors open and made it onto the 21st floor, which was under renovation. Gelb could look down at the workspace of the woman who sat at the desk next to his own, Iris Kones, who perished in what turned out to be a fire-bombing (in which the Jewish Defense League was allegedly implicated) to protest Hurok’s work with artists from the Soviet Union.
So when thousands of New Yorkers surround the Metropolitan Opera today, Monday, to protest Gelb’s decision to mount “The Death of Klinghoffer” on America’s premier stage, it won’t be the first time he has been tested. The protest is being organized by a coalition of Jewish groups, who are infuriated that the opera is being staged in New York, against the wishes of the Klinghoffer family, and in a new season of terror.
The coalition includes some of the most admirable of the Jewish defense organizations — such as Americans for a Safe Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, AMCHA, and the Zionist Organization of America. A score or more of other groups, including Jewish day schools, will be there Monday, setting an example for and rallying other youth. A number of Christian groups, including the Catholic League, will be there as well.
The ranks of the announced protestors are swelling, as politicians and clergymen sign up. Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, a hero of what I like to call a constitutional hard line in the war on terror, is due to be one of the speakers. No doubt other major figures, too. I thought I might delay writing about it until I’d seen the opera, but that would transgress the rule of newspapering that holds “don’t wait.”
So I put in a call late last week to Gelb. I was eager to hear his thinking. When I reached him, he had just gained a settlement in a historic and unrelated labor negotiation with the Met’s unions, resulting in a compromise that included the first givebacks by the unions since the early years of the Great Depression. In addition to “Klinghoffer,” he’s got half a dozen or more operas going up this season.
“I run an opera house that I’ve been working very hard to keep current and theatrically alive,” Gelb told me. “He wants to “move the art form forward,” he said, “not only to create new productions of the classics but also to introduce new works.” He said he considers John Adams, who composed “The Death of Klinghoffer,” to be “indisputably the greatest composer of American opera writing today.”
Gelb told me he’d made it a point when he took his job to say he would introduce Adams’ work at the Met. Of Adams he said: “What inspires his genius — and he is a genius — are real historical events.” Hence “Nixon in China,” about the first encounter between the 37th president and the Red Chinese mass murderer Mao Tse-tung,” and “Dr. Atomic,” about the lead scientist of our A-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer.
Yet Gelb gives the impression that the swelling protest over Klinghoffer caught him a bit off guard. There had been some protests, and eventually edits of the work, when “Klinghoffer” was staged 23 years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was presented at Julliard, America’s leading music school, several years ago, and more recently at St. Louis and Long Beach, California. It breasted whatever controversy there was.
Gelb originally planned not only to stage “Klinghoffer” at the Met but to broadcast it into theaters around the word. This coincided with the outbreak of waves of anti-Semitism in Europe, and eventually Gelb was persuaded to cancel the broadcasts. Plans to go forward on the Met stage would have been harder to unravel, but he didn’t want to. “The opera is not anti-Semitic,” he insists. “It does not glorify terrorism.”
That is disputed by Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa. “As you watch ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,’ a baritone will play the role of Leon Klinghoffer, and sing ‘The Aria of the Falling Body’ as he artfully falls into the sea,” they say in a statement prepared for inclusion in the opera’s Playbill at the Met. “Competing choruses will highlight Jewish and Palestinian narratives of suffering and oppression, selectively presenting the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The terrorists, portrayed by four distinguished opera singers, will be given a back story, an ‘explanation’ for their brutal act of terror and violence.”
“We are,” they add, “strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theater and music can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. The Death of Klinghoffer does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
Which is no doubt why so many New Yorkers will be outside the Met to make it clear, at this particular crossroads, which side they are on.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.