'Klinghoffer' Opera Does Not Glorify anti-Semitic Violence

Raw, uneasy, complicated and messy: Despite its faults, the Met Opera’s ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ is simply not the anti-Semitic bogeyman the protesters make it out to be.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Demonstrators protest outside Lincoln Center in New York on October 20, 2014 against The Metropolitan Opera's planned performances of 'The Death of Klinghoffer.'
Demonstrators protest outside Lincoln Center in New York on October 20, 2014 against The Metropolitan Opera's planned performances of 'The Death of Klinghoffer.'Credit: AFP
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

New York – About 20 minutes before curtain up, I walked the gauntlet of shame. After spending the past hour among hundreds of people protesting the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” I crossed Columbus Avenue to Lincoln Center, passing police barricades, clusters of officers and shouts of “Shame on you!” to attend its opening night.

A protester holds up a sign ahead of the Metropolitan Opera's planned performances of 'The Death of Klinghoffer' in 2014.Credit: Brian Shaefer

Since its premiere in 1991 in Brussels, “The Death of Klinghoffer” has attracted fiery condemnation as well as passionate defense. The opera dramatizes the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, and the subsequent murder of the 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. It has both been accused of blatant anti-Semitism, and celebrated as an artistic masterpiece.

But what does the opera actually portray? How does it feel to sit in the theater and watch this story unfold? Are the claims that it glorifies terrorism valid? In short, is “The Death of Klinghoffer” as dangerous as its opponents would have us believe?

Inside the Met, the air was charged with nervous anticipation. The demonstration outside infused the evening with a sense of urgency; opera once again became a space of social relevance, something it hasn’t really been in a long time. When the lights dimmed and the orchestra readied itself, the audience roared. Before intermission, a man yelled, “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven,” until he was ushered out of the theater to applause and booing. Tonight, art mattered.

The first scene of “Klinghoffer” is a haunting prologue comprised of the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians, in which women shrouded in black lament their lost homeland. This is followed by the Chorus of Exiled Jews, in which immigrant men and women, grasping young trees, do the same. Above each chorus, a list of significant dates was projected, among them, 1948, 1967, 1982, 1995, 2003, 2014. We know these dates – dates of violence and death. By beginning the opera this way, we understand that it is not really about one man and one incident, it is about a history of mutual pain.

It is raw, uneasy material. Those who claim that the opera sympathizes with the plight of the Palestinian people are correct. It also sympathizes with the plight of the Jewish people. The depiction of the four terrorists is more complicated, and this is the heart of the objection of the protesters: Is it ever appropriate to give voice to a murderer? Theater, film and literature are filled with stories that seek insight into the minds of murders and terrorists. What John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman have done with “The Death of Klinghoffer” is not so different than what Truman Capote did with “In Cold Blood,” though of course that isolated event didn’t carry such potent political baggage.

Still, it is the nature and responsibility of art to scrutinize people’s behavior. This is not vindication – this is examination. Depiction and dramatization is not the same as glorification. Probing motivation is not the same as justifying it.

That doesn’t mean the opera is perfectly balanced and without fault. To my mind, the arias of the hijackers are uncomfortably benign in their imagery and metaphors. The gentleness of the melodies and the focus on childhood memories unfairly and dangerously ignores the violent hatred and savage political ideology that inspires an act as extreme and brutal as a hijacking. And I agree with those who decry the title, insisting that it should read “The Murder of Klinghoffer.” We who support the freedom of expression must also insist on the precision of words. Leon Klinghoffer was indeed murdered.

I attended the opera last night to form my own impressions and develop my own criticisms. In both attending the protest and the performance, I am equipped to speak my own truth, relying on no one else to speak it for me.

As much as the protesters would have you think that “The Death of Klinghoffer” is all about the personal narratives of the Palestinian terrorists, it is Klinghoffer, his wife Marilyn, and the ship’s captain who are the opera’s most fully developed characters. (The captain largely narrates the unfolding events.) Klinghoffer is given several searing arias and is portrayed as a brave and righteous man. Marilyn, who at the time of the attack was battling terminal cancer and died four months later, is depicted with poise and dignity. In the murder of her husband, she carries the weight of the Jewish people. Adams recognizes and honors this by giving Marilyn the final, chilling word.

The Klinghoffers did not ask to represent an entire people and I understand and respect the position of their daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, in opposing the dramatization of a personal tragedy. (A message from Lisa and Ilsa to this effect was included in the Met’s program.) But history happens to unwilling bystanders, and art has a long tradition of turning them into symbols. We can denounce this, but we must allow it.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is simply not the bogeyman the protesters make it out to be – or seem to wish that it were. It is much easier to oppose something that is one-sided and obvious; it is harder to grapple with a complicated, messy portrayal.

The opera is certainly political, but it does not have a political agenda. At the pre-performance demonstrations, speakers called it one of the gravest threats that Jews in America have faced in decades. They called it evil and equated Peter Gelb, the Met’s director, with Hitler.

These are dangerous assertions, and utterly ridiculous. The great irony is that it is the protesters who have turned “Klinghoffer” into a Frankenstein of their own making. They have imbued it with a power that it does not intrinsically have. It has ballooned thanks only to the wind of their own rhetoric; had they ignored it, a few hundred New Yorkers would have discussed it over dinner and moved on.

Perhaps this production would not have faced such vitriol were it not for the recent war in Gaza, which inspired a frightening wave of anti-Semitism that swept through Western Europe and beyond. We certainly have legitimate cause for concern in this world and must be vigilant against true threats to Jewish safety and security. “The Death of Klinghoffer” is not one of them. It is an easy target at which to project our fears.

It is also a missed opportunity to take effective action against the spread of anti-Semitism where it really exists. Instead of demonizing an elite cultural institution and focusing all of their energy on shaming a few theatergoers, the many Jewish organizations that banded together against the Met could have worked with the organization to develop a strategy of education, much like Opera Theatre of St. Louis did successfully in 2011. (Their production of “Klinghoffer” was recently staged in Long Beach, to little uproar).

In St. Louis, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders collaborated on a curriculum that addressed the opera’s challenging and sensitive material. In doing so, those leaders both diffused tension and strengthened community. Rather than demand that the Met cancel its live broadcast of “Klinghoffer” around the world, a solution that satisfied no one, Jewish organizations could have insisted that the Met accompany the broadcast with outreach efforts in local communities to face anti-Semitism head-on.

What the demonstrators most clearly demonstrated last night was that the Jewish community has lost the ability to communicate – with each other and with those who challenge our worldview. This was all too clear on social media over the summer as well. The theater, at its best, is a facilitator of dialogue. It is a space where stories can inspire conversation – and we have few other such places left in society. The shame of the Met’s production of the “The Death of Klinghoffer” is not what happened inside the theater – it’s what happened outside.

Brian Schaefer is a New York-based contributor to Haaretz.

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