The Met cancels ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ simulcast to avoid fomenting anti-Semitic backlash


A scene from “The Death of Klinghoffer,” performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo by Martha Swope)

In the fall of 1985, Palestinian guerrilla leader Mohammed Abbas masterminded the brutal highjacking of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. Abbas was not present, but for two days, four members of the Palestine Liberation Front held more than 400 passengers aboard the Achille Lauro hostage. A disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot to death and dumped overboard with his wheelchair. His body later washed up on a Syrian beach, and the attack made international headlines.

The events inspired the 1991 docu-opera composed by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, which has been criticized as sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorists who overtook the ship. New York’s Metropolitan

Baritone Sanford Sylvan as Leon Klinghoffer with dancer double in Act II of the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" Photo by Martha Swope.
Baritone Sanford Sylvan as Leon Klinghoffer with dancer in Act II. Photo by Martha Swope.

Opera will open “Klinghoffer” on Oct. 20, a new production first staged by the English National Opera in 2012, but it has nixed plans for an international high-definition cinema simulcast slated for Nov. 15, citing fears of fomenting anti-Semitism. The 2012 English production had one protester outside the theater; in the early 90′s, there were many more in San Francisco and enough in Los Angeles that the production was canceled. Under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League, the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, elected to yank the broadcast, which normally goes to 2,000 movie theaters in 67 countries worldwide. It’s the first time the company has canceled a broadcast since it started offering them in 2006.

“I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” Gelb said in a statement released Tuesday. “But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”

The opera company took pains to consider the daughters of Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer, and agreed to run a message from them in the playbill for the show and on its Web site, according to Broadway World. The opera did not enjoy a friendly response when it debuted in 1991. Writing for The Washington Post in 2001, critic Phil Kennicott said:

Adams uses the power of musical characterization to explain motive and deepen our sympathies even for violent characters. Yet it is done with grace. The anger directed at Adams after the opening, the anger that has kept the opera from the revivals its deserves, was doubly deep because Adams was so good at disappearing behind his music. The shock of ‘Klinghoffer’ was not that John Adams, the composer, put terrorists onstage; it was that Adams’s music made them human.

Now the opera house has kicked off another debate about whether it was right to preemptively censor itself — and if it’s handing those it feared would retaliate even more power than they initially had.

“My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder,” Adams said in a statement to David Ng of the Los Angeles Times. “It acknowledges the dreams and the grievances of not only the Israeli but also the Palestinian people, and in no form condones or promotes violence, terrorism or anti-Semitism. The cancellation of the international telecast is a deeply regrettable decision and goes far beyond issues of ‘artistic freedom,’ and ends in promoting the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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