The wheelchair protest is planned, the ex-governor continues to speak of his disgust, and those attending the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production Monday will find a first in their programs: A letter denouncing what they’re about to see.
This is the swirl of controversy surrounding the Met’s premiere of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the John Adams opera that is based on the brutal murder in 1985 of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish tourist shot by Palestinian terrorists and pushed into the sea from the deck of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.
The controversy, which has sparked protests at Lincoln Center, a letter-writing campaign and the cancellation of the Met’s broadcasts of the opera, seems to have left everybody involved unhappy.
“Ignorance is always frustrating,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, complaining this week about the critics, who he believes have been too aggressive in their attempts to block the production.
“It’s unfortunate and it’s wrong,” former New York governor George Pataki said of the Met’s decision to program “The Death of Klinghoffer.” “Just the title says it all. Klinghoffer didn’t die. He was murdered.”
And Adams said that the Met’s decision to cancel the movie theater simulcasts and radio broadcasts of “Klinghoffer” was “radical” and “damaging in every way.”
He said Gelb told him he had no choice after the Anti-Defamation League made that demand.
“I guess what surprised me has been the extent of the toxicity,” said Adams. “I mean, I saw a photo of one of the demonstrators holding up a sign of an [Islamic State] execution. That was a level of intensity I could not anticipate.”
In an interview this week, Judea Pearl, the Israeli-born father of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002, called the opera offensive and compared its presentation to the idea of staging rapes and child molestations in a theater. He said he had written to Gelb to oppose the production but never received a response.
“This is offensive not to Jews,” he said. “It’s offensive to humanity.”
For the Met, “The Death of Klinghoffer” has raised two important questions. How does an institution present a controversial work closely linked to the heightened emotions surrounding current events? And how do you counter protesters who, almost with defiance, say they have not seen the work?
“I certainly don’t intend to go see it,” said Pataki. “I’ve read excerpts from the script.”
Those selections have been enough, he said, to show that the opera humanizes the terrorists who killed Klinghoffer.
“I don’t attack a book until I’ve read it, attack a politician until I’ve heard them,” said Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s longtime literary editor.
Wieseltier calls the Met’s decision to present “The Death of Klinghoffer” a “colossal mistake” for a different reason. He said the opera house should be presenting something better. He saw “Klinghoffer” in 1991 at its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“Musically, it’s a mediocre work,” Wieseltier said. “It has some beautiful choral writing, but the idea it’s a work of musical genius is just absurd. Mainly, I think the problem is that it’s fascinated by the perpetrators and bored by the victims. The perpetrators are dark and mesmerizing and romantic and tragic. The victims are whiny and cliched and of no human interest whatsoever.”
Others disagree. And past performances of “The Death of Klinghoffer” have been praised by critics. Gelb calls the opera Adams’s best.
He also said that he found it hard to believe Pataki wouldn’t want to see the production for himself.
“When I was a child, growing up and going to Sunday school for my bar mitzvah, I was taught that one of the achievements of Judaism was intellectual curiosity,” he said. “I understand, of course, the world is more polarized than ever. But trying to shut down an event, or this production, or as one of the protesters said, ‘This set should be burned to the ground,’ these are violent ideas and ignorant ideas.”
“The Death of Klinghoffer” premiered in 1991, and since then, many productions have been staged without incident. Others have not. In November 2001, the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled performances of sections of the opera. The decision came after an appeal from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The husband of a singer in the chorus had died on one of the airplanes crashed by terrorists on 9/11.
The Met, which has also presented Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” and “Nixon in China,” made plans to present “The Death of Klinghoffer” years ago, said Gelb, long before the current unrest over the string of videotaped assassinations by the extremist Islamic State.
The complaints began months ago and led Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to meet with Gelb to ask that the opera not be offered as one of the Met’s movie and radio broadcasts. He also asked that a letter from Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, be included in programs. The sisters went anonymously to the BAM production in 1991 and, while declining to do interviews about the opera, have spoken out against it repeatedly since then.
In the letter, they write that they believe “The Death of Klinghoffer” glorifies the terrorists who killed their father and should not be presented.
“It presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew,” the sisters write in the statement to be included in programs. “It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
Gelb said he agreed to the ADL’s request because he felt he needed to compromise after receiving hundreds of angry e-mails earlier this year.
But Julie Van Camp, a now retired professor at California State University at Long Beach who specializes in issues of art censorship, said the Met’s approach has been a mistake. Van Camp spoke with protesters this year when she visited New York to see the Bolshoi Ballet. She wanted to hear their arguments. She said the Met has missed out on an important opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
“Once they decided to go for it, they should have thought about how you can go about presenting the total issue to the public,” said Van Camp. “Let’s talk about these issues.”
“I can think of so many classics that have things that are offensive,” she continued. “Look at how they portray Chinese dancers in ‘Nutcracker.’ It just makes you cringe. And Wagnerian operas. We all know Wagner was an anti-Semite. The fact that Hitler liked Wagner, should we ban all Wagner? I don’t know where the slippery slope ends.”
Foxman said he doesn’t believe “The Death of Klinghoffer” is anti-Semitic. He does think it is a mistake for the Met to present it. He has also been disheartened by the intensity of the debate.
“I think the age of compromise is gone,” he said. “There is no moderation. It’s either-or. In this case, the people, under freedom of speech, think I’ve done damage to that. The people who think this is so horrific think I’ve sold out.”
Foxman said he is unlikely to see “Klinghoffer.”
“I’ve had my fill,” he said, stating that he’s watched a filmed production on DVD and read the libretto. In the end, it’s unclear how many people will actually see Adams’s work.
Gelb said that as of this week, about half of the tickets to the eight performances had been sold.
When asked whether he thought it would be only right for the protesters to see the production, John Adams paused.
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin there,” he said. “People have been trying to broker peace in the Middle East, much more skilled people than me. I don’t view opera as a peace-making vehicle. It’s a work of art, and it conveys my perception of events and my emotional and intellectual response to them. It would be foolish to try to say to people that this opera is a learning moment.”
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the cancelled Boston Symphony concert..