Is 'Death of Klinghoffer' Opera Really Anti-Semitic?

Modern 'Musical Masterpiece' Looks for Humanity in Terrorists

Embattled Opera: Lisa, left, and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer who was killed in the Achille Lauro cruise liner hijacking in 1985.
Haaretz
Embattled Opera: Lisa, left, and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer who was killed in the Achille Lauro cruise liner hijacking in 1985.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published June 08, 2014.
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(Haaretz) — The contemporary opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” has been fraught with conflict since its premiere, and is poised to be as divisive when it is performed by the Metropolitan Opera here in November, and simultaneously transmitted in high definition to movie theaters around the world.

The 1991 opera, by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, portrays the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian 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.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is slated to be performed and simulcast to 2,000 theaters in 66 theaters around the world, including to 700 movie theaters in the U.S., on November 15th. “This would make the live performance immediately available to hundreds of thousands of people (and potentially millions according to the Met), giving wide international distribution to what is, at its heart, an anti-Jewish slander,” wrote Myron Kaplan, an opera fan and senior research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, or CAMERA, a media-monitoring organization based in Boston, in an open letter published on the news website JNS.org.

In it, Kaplan excoriates the opera for being anti-Semitic, the story line tendentious and the libretto biased and inflammatory. It “falsely maligns Israel and the Jewish people,” Kaplan writes.

His is one of two letters of complaints the Met has received about its planned production, according to a spokesperson there. But they expect more to come. “We certainly realize that because of its sensitive subject matter Klinghoffer is different than most other contemporary operas, and we expect that it will attract more comment as we approach its scheduled performances in the fall,” said Lee Abrahamian, the Met’s director of communications.

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, wrote back to Kaplan and in his letter calls the opera “one of the most important musical compositions of the late 20th century” and Adams “the most important American composer of opera of the last 30 years.”

“I have an artistic duty to present our audiences — both in the opera house and in movie theaters around the world — with this production of an opera that is a contemporary musical masterpiece,” Gelb wrote to Kaplan. “John Adams has said that in composing ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ he tried to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in their victims. Tom Morris, the director of the Met’s new production, believes that the opera’s most important contribution is in providing an opportunity for the audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict and pattern of abhorrent violent acts.”

Asked by email, the only way he would agree to be interviewed, what he thought of Gelb’s response, CAMERA’s Kaplan did not respond.

Leon Klinghoffer’s widow, Marilyn, died of colon cancer shortly after his murder. Their daughters, Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer, told The New York Times after the opera’s premiere, “We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic.” The sisters attended the U.S. premiere anonymously at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In that article they said, “While we understand artistic license, when it so clearly favors one point of view it is biased. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”

This week, their spokeswoman, Letty Simon, said that they “have no additional comments beyond what they previously said (in the New York Times) years ago.”

One rabbi and opera fan saw “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2003 and has tickets to see it again in November. He found the opera provocative, but only in the way that art should be provocative.

“The opera should remind a new generation, or a generation that has become unaware, of the events of 1985 and the Achille Lauro and the Palestinian Liberation Front,” says Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, who works as vice president for philanthropy at the World Union for Progressive Judaism. “Here was a wanton murder of a helpless human being. Trying to portray both sides and show they’re not monsters, but human beings who did foul, awful things to advance their cause, shows that it was a horrific event. If by producing this those questions are raised again, is that a bad thing? Discussions need to be had.”

He says that he’s eager to see it again. “I want to be provoked again, and see what my reactions are now, 11 years after I saw it last time.”

“Great art has always raised questions,” says Bretton-Granatoor. “Art is not meant to soothe, it’s meant to provoke.”


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