John Adams and The Death of Klinghoffer: Protests at the Met

John Adams
John Adams

Police barricades, yelling demonstrators, hectoring politicians and bitter press harangues — and all this after settling a summertime labor dispute with IATSE Local 1? No, this is not how the world’s greatest opera house, the Metropolitan Opera, expected to stage its 2014-2015 season.

The Met’s gold damask curtain parted this season on Oct. 2 with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a repertory warhorse that has delighted generations of listeners since its premiere at Vienna’s Burgtheater on May 1, 1786, despite the fact that Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto from the Beaumarchais play was so controversial that permission to perform it was required from Austrian Emperor Joseph II.

The Metropolitan Opera made its debut in October 1883 with Gounod’s Faust. The “Old Met” (as it is still fondly called) occupied the entire block of Broadway between 48th and 49th streets until 1966, when it moved to and became the crown jewel of the new Lincoln Center.

The original Metropolitan Opera house.
The "Old Met"

The Old Met’s first production of The Marriage of Figaro came a decade after its opening, on June 30, 1894. Mozart’s beloved Figaro was also the first of the 2014 Met HD simulcasts on Oct. 18, broadcast live internationally to several thousand movie screens.

Such a glorious history is unlikely to be shared by John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, which recently concluded its initial (and probably only) set of performances at the Met. Klinghoffer is the second of three topical operas by Adams, who is widely regarded as America’s greatest contemporary composer. The Met previously staged the other two, Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic (the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Trinity atomic test of July 1945).

The Death of Klinghoffer dramatizes the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by four members of the PLO, who proceeded to murder 69-year-old disabled retiree Leon Klinghoffer, who was celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary with his wife, Marilyn. Klinghoffer was shot in the forehead and the chest; the murderers forced the ship’s barber and a waiter to push him, still in his wheelchair, into the sea.

Leon Klinghoffer
Leon Klinghoffer

Klinghoffer’s body was recovered by Syria some days later and returned to the United States. His funeral was held at Temple Shaaray Tefila and was attended by more than 800 mourners. Marilyn Klinghoffer died four months later. Klinghoffer is survived by his two daughters.

The Adams opera was commissioned by a consortium of eight sponsors and was given its premiere in Brussels on March 19, 1991. The first U.S. performance took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music six months later. (It was staged at BAM again in 2003.) There was a production by the San Francisco Opera in November 1992, and also performances in Philadelphia and St. Louis, at Juilliard in New York, and, earlier this year, at Long Beach Opera in Southern California (after L.A. Opera bowed out). The Met’s production of Klinghoffer, its first, was scheduled for late October 2014. Clearly, this work has had a wide performance history (even in New York) leading up to the Met.

In June, Met general manager Peter Gelb announced (after a meeting with the Anti-Defamation League) that the scheduled October HD simulcast of Klinghoffer on 2,200 screens in 66 countries would be canceled because of the opera’s alleged “anti-Semitism,” a reaction to growing concern about anti-Semitism in Europe. But a coalition of Jewish organizations, as well as Klinghoffer’s daughters, did not believe this concession was enough. Some wanted the Met to cancel the entire production, threatening protests at Lincoln Center if it moved forward. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, called the work “an operatic Kristallnacht.” The Guardian quoted Klein:

'Obviously, it is not the same level, but here you have an opera that is promoting hatred of Jews,' Klein said. He said that along with getting the opera canceled, demonstrators are hoping to send a message to others not to put out plays they [the ZOA] consider anti-Semitic.


The Met reacted, releasing its own statement:

The rumors and inaccuracies about the opera and its presentation at the Met are part of a campaign to have it suppressed. ‘Klinghoffer’ is neither anti-Semitic, nor does it glorify terrorism. The Met will not bow to this pressure.

Gelb, under fire for deciding to stage the work, told NPR:

Any work of art that deals with conflict has to be authentic, has to explore both sides of the conflict. It explains the motives of the Palestinian terrorists, but that doesn’t mean it supports them.

What happened next is unheard of in the staid world of opera and has raised larger and troubling questions about the intersection of hot-button political issues and the arts. On the afternoon of Oct. 20, hundreds of people assembled along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue just outside Lincoln Center. A rally attended by several N.Y. political leaders, as well as former mayor Rudy Giuliani, unfolded over the next hours.

4. snuff opera
Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani (left) joins the protestors.

Several dozen protestors wearing signs stating, “I Am Leon Klinghoffer” lined up in wheelchairs outside the plaza. Ticket holders gained access to the opera house through police barricades as protesters yelled, “Shame!” Many of the chanters might not actually have seen the work, but Giuliani, a great opera lover, said he “knew” the music. Current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, did not support the opera’s cancellation. He told the New York Post:

I really think we have to be very careful, in a free society, to respect that cultural institutions will portray works of art, will put on operas, plays, that there’ll be art exhibits in museums — and in a free society, we respect that.

The Met has made a trailer for the production that doesn’t flinch from provocation:

These are inflammatory words and stirring music, and opera’s deeply emotive power, together with the passion of a staged performance, has been the medium’s essence for centuries. It’s really only with the advent of cinema and then television that opera stopped provoking and evoking strong emotions in the general society. Wagner’s Ring Cycle became a talisman for the Nazis. The “Va pensiroso” chorus of Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco became an anthem for Italian independence in the mid-19th century, and it has remained so vital to Italian identity that a few years ago, an Italian senator proposed that it replace the national anthem.

It is totally understandable that emotions run high and even boil over when such a powerful and polarizing work as The Death of Klinghoffer is announced in America’s capital city of the arts, which are passionately supported by numerous Jewish patrons.

5. met facade and pickets

Journalist Justin Davidson of New York magazine addresses the issue of sensitivity:

One way to start the forgiveness cycle and rescue humanity might be to try empathizing with those who find the work upsetting, including, for example, Klinghoffer’s daughters. Actually, what’s astounding is that a group of right-thinking artists should turn a real-life episode of unthinking rage and appalling cruelty into a volatile work of art — and then sputter in disbelief when it triggers powerful reactions. Whether ­Adams & Co. like it or not, it is a shocking experience to hear a terrorist sing: ­‘Wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.’ On the other hand, if you’re going to put Palestinian terrorists onstage, these are the sorts of sentiments they are going to express.

Adams and Tom Morris, the director of the new production, offer their views in a Met video:

A local Fox News story presents the protestors’ perspective:

The New York Post quotes one protestor:

‘It’s very easy to see that there is an injustice going on,’ said protester Shabbos Kestenbaum, a 15-year-old from Riverdale. “We think that the Met is incorrectly promoting terrorism. They are promoting murder. They are saying that this act is justified and not only is it justified, it’s glorified.’ The 10th-grader added: ‘There is a moral dilemma here. We can’t just be passive and sit by while the Met, a respected institution, sadly portrays a cruel and evil injustice going on.’

6. I am klinghoffer

In the Los Angeles Times, music critic Mark Swed finds a different perspective:

‘People say it does this or that. But did they see it?’ said Dale Ducko, a Broadway stage manager who said he was regular at the Met. ‘I look at the movie United 93 and how it showed a plane full of lost souls — everybody is a lost soul — and I expect this will do the same.’

This may be closer to Adams’ and librettist Alice Goodman’s shared goal: a passionate dialogue, with each side airing its grievances. Klinghoffer has been criticized for its abstracted coolness. Adams and Goodman have suggested, in fact, that the staging of the first act should be done more like an oratorio than an opera, with little choreography and the singers not “acting.” This is most apparent in the two opening choruses, “Of the Exiled Palestinians” and “Of the Exiled Jews,” both sung before the action unfolds.

In 2003, Penny Woolcock, in conjunction with BBC4, directed a movie of The Death of Klinghoffer, which was trimmed by about 20 minutes to conform to standard feature-film length. As if there were not enough controversy about the work, Woolcock added historical reenactments, including the founding of Israel (during “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians”), and included very disturbing documentary images of the extermination of Jews in Nazi death camps (during “Chorus of Exiled Jews”). When Woolcock’s film was shown at a Lincoln Center celebration of Adams’ music, New York Magazine critic Peter G. Davis noted:

Leaving politics aside for the moment, what strikes me as most offensive about the work is its sheer ineptitude. Every important composer is entitled to write a stinker now and then, but Adams has surely produced a lulu …. Goodman’s libretto is worse than naïve—it fails on just about every level. Her character portraits are cold and bloodless, the larger vision is prosy and constipated, and her self-conscious literary tone has the musty odor of a vanity-press poetry journal. No wonder Adams seems baffled trying to find music for this miserable text. All he has managed to produce is a hopelessly meandering, tensionless score that sounds like the most vapid New Age pap.

Goodman, Jewish by birth but now a Christian rector, says that the controversy dashed her hopes of ever becoming a major librettist. She became unemployable after the premiere.

On IMDb, Ed Uyeshima wrote of the film:

Adams' familiar post-minimalist music turns out to be surprisingly compatible with the true-life story, as the propulsive vocal parts blend well with Alice Goodman's politically charged libretto. Sung off-screen to vivid montages, the beautiful choruses provide effective bridges and a broader context to the immediate drama of the opera, an aspect that was likely left quite abstract when sung onstage. The other powerful dimension Woolcock brings to this adaptation is the use of real locations and archive footage to make relevant the opera's overall abstraction to the viewer. This is a brave move since the political situation suddenly becomes actualized with the film.

The movie version, like most attempts to “film” opera, is an interesting hybrid, not least because of Woolcock’s valiant attempt to make it a real movie. Whether it best serves the music and libretto to be set in film space instead of onstage is another question.

Here, from the film, are “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of Exiled Jews”:

The fallout from The Death of Klinghoffer began at the time of the premiere in 1991 and continues, perhaps even more passionately, today, a kind of analogue to the ever-widening distance between Israelis and Palestinians in the so-far-futile effort to establish a lasting resolution to the conflict. Many look to art for insight, guidance and solace, believing that its higher aspirations can strengthen our compassion and humanity. But The Death of Klinghoffer seems to only rub salt in old wounds, a sad comment on the state of mankind.

Carol and I attended the Oct. 29 performance at the Met. It had rained a few hours earlier, and the night air had become chilly. Approaching Lincoln Center, we saw a single protester in a wheelchair holding a photo of Mr. Klinghoffer. A few more were at the bottom of the plaza, several casually chatting with the police as the Met’s great portals beckoned opera lovers.

7. Metropolitan_Opera_House_At_Lincoln_Center_2


In the NY Times year end review of the best in the arts (Dec. 14) Anthony Tommasini writes that the only mistake that Peter Gelb made in this sad affair "was canceling the live in HD telecast as a gesture of compromise to the Anti-Defamation League. Still, he and the Met deserve credit for presenting the opera, which, is, tragically, all too timely."

The Death of Klinghoffer is a deeply moving work and it bears all the marks of Adams’ lyrical richness and passion, but layered as well with his emotional and formal restraint. Sadly, it is not likely that the Met will mount another production of it anytime soon, and we all, even its misguided opponents, are poorer for it.

NEXT: Sebastiao Salgado: A three-part look at the Brazilian photographer's life and work, and a new documentary, "Salt of the Earth," by Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado.


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