Canceling 'Death of Klinghoffer' Opera Broadcast Elitist and Naive

Why We Shouldn't Welcome the Met's Decision

Rough Crossing: The Achille Lauro cruise ship was hijacked in 1985, leading to the murder of Jewish American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, who was immortalized in a controversial opera by John Adams.
Getty Images
Rough Crossing: The Achille Lauro cruise ship was hijacked in 1985, leading to the murder of Jewish American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, who was immortalized in a controversial opera by John Adams.

By Adam Langer

Published June 18, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

While Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League are welcoming the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to cancel its global video and radio simulcast of John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” I’m less enthusiastic. The opera has stoked controversy ever since it premiered with its purportedly sympathetic portrayal of the terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murdered the disabled, 69-year-old Jewish American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, and directed a crew member to throw his body overboard, unbeknownst to his wife Marilyn who thought her husband had been sent to a hospital. Despite Met managing director Peter Gelb’s contention that “Klinghoffer” is not anti-Semitic, he seemed to acknowledge that the Met’s original plans to broadcast the opera to a reported 2,000 screens in 66 countries could inflame bigotry in a time of rising global anti-Semitism. Klinghoffer’s daughters have also raised serious objections to the opera, and the Met has agreed to publish a letter from them in its program.

For his part, unsurprisingly, composer John Adams — creator of “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic” and arguably one of the most important living American composers — has released a statement taking issue with the Met’s decision. The New York Times quotes Adams as saying that his opera “accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer.”

I’m willing to accept Adams at his word that his intentions weren’t guided by prejudice and that his motivations were complex and nuanced. And I’m also willing to accept that the ADL truly believes “Klinghoffer” to be a particularly “problematic” opera. But the thing is, other than some fairly powerful YouTube clips, I haven’t seen the opera. Because of its controversial nature, the opera hasn’t been seen much since its premiere. Still, I’m not particularly interested in having my theatergoing experience shaped by a composer’s version of his purported intentions or the ADL’s opinion of what is or isn’t appropriate for me to see. To be honest, though I admired “Doctor Atomic,” John Adams’s Klinghoffer opera has never been on my Top Ten list of shows to see. In fact, back when I was single and the opera had its premiere, a good friend of mine had an informal competition to decide what would be the worst possible date to have. “Take her to see ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,” my friend once joked. He won the competition easily. The Met controversy has piqued my interest, though, making me want to judge the work for myself.

Bringing us to the Met’s decision which, by maintaining the production but canceling the broadcast, makes the opera accessible only to Met subscribers or buyers of single tickets, which last time I tried to snag some, were nearly a couple hundred bucks a throw for decent seats. Apparently, the content of “Klinghoffer” is disturbing enough that it should be presented only to those willing to pay top dollar to see it. The Met’s having-it-both-ways decision seems, to my mind, to be both elitist and naïve — elitist, in that it seems to presume that only the Met’s moneyed regulars will have the wisdom not to be inflamed by the opera’s purportedly incendiary content; naïve, in that it suggests that broadcasting the opera in movie theaters and on radio might somehow have the power to severely impact international discourse. Call me a cynic, but I have about as much as faith in that happening as I do in “Doctor Atomic” significantly affecting discussions of nuclear energy or Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” paving the way for world peace.

Then again, though, this is all based on a series of presumptions about an opera that I haven’t actually seen and, I’d hazard a guess, few members of the ADL have actually seen either. So, it’s not like many people, myself included, are presenting truly informed arguments here. Come autumn, I suppose, I could shell out a couple hundred bucks to remedy that situation, but somehow I doubt I’m going to do that.

Adam Langer is the Forward’s arts and culture editor.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.