Along Broadway, in front of Lincoln Center, the protesters had been lining up since afternoon, many of them in wheelchairs as a gesture of solidarity with Klinghoffer. Rudolph Giuliani, New York’s former mayor was among the speakers (“it’s a factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging piece”); others were less well-known, and less restrained in their comments. But though everyone was braced for disruptions during the performance, and one person was arrested for disorderly conduct, there were, in the event, only a few catcalls. At one point in Act I, a man began shouting, “The murderer of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!” over and over, with a kind of desperate driving monotony, as if channeling the patterns of so-called Minimalist music. He was presumably responding to the idea that the opera is supposed to be favorable to the terrorists, but since the scene that had just played showed nothing but terrorist brutality, his point was rather lost in the execution.
By intermission, most of the protesters seemed to have dispersed, and the opera was ultimately greeted with ovations: justified accolades for the fine musicians who had braved a lot of heat, and even threats, to make sure that the show went on. (Given the tenor of the debate before the opening, being a dark-skinned singer playing a terrorist — Sean Panikkar, Ryan Speedo Green, Aubrey Allicock, or Maya Lahyani — must have been a particularly daunting assignment, and all four of them excelled.) Alan Opie, who was moving and crusty as Klinghoffer, and Michaela Martens, warm and deep-voiced as his wife Marilyn, were, not surprisingly, crowd favorites, as was Paulo Szot, the ship’s captain-cum-narrator. Colorful in supporting roles were Maria Zifchak as the Swiss grandmother, Christopher Feigum as the first officer, and Theodora Hanslowe as the woman who stayed hidden in her cabin for the whole hijacking. There were ovations for David Robertson, the elegant and sometimes overpowering conductor, and even a roar of approval for Adams, who was surely braced, when he walked out on stage, for a more mixed reaction.
Yet the best performances in the world couldn’t make up for the work’s considerable flaws. Adams’s score has moved from the kinetic, colorful zaniness of “Nixon in China,” the first “docu-opera” he wrote with the director Peter Sellars and the librettist Alice Goodman, to a richer and more nuanced vocabulary. “Klinghoffer’s” music is filled with moving instrumental solos intertwining with the voices, and shining choruses pregnant with tension. But it’s also a lot more static. This isn’t entirely Adams’s fault. Even the strongest music in the world cannot redeem a libretto as diffuse and full of blather as Alice Goodman’s tedious “Klinghoffer” text. It drones on and on without actually being sure of what it wants to say, obfuscating rather than clarifying its points in the name of “poetry” and “art,” neither of which it serves.
Goodman was already guilty of this in “Nixon in China,” but it’s more obvious in “Klinghoffer,” because the subject is more incendiary and the pacing is much slower. You have plenty of time to notice, in other words, that the opera lacks a strong point of view. It throws out a lot of ideas, and takes refuge behind the mantle of art from actually thinking them through (the Palestinian scenes, in Tom Morris’s Met production, were a lot more pointed and incendiary than the Jewish ones). Sellars’s original production, indeed, aimed at a kind of abstraction, with singers in simple white garments; by contrast Morris, and his costume designer Laura Hopkins, offered 1980s-vintage tourist resort wear. The production even projects explanatory texts on the wall to clarify what actually happened at moments when the libretto’s “poetic” moments are opaque.
There are a number of reasons why people claim this work is anti-Semitic, but the loudest protesters seemed to focus on the most banal of them. The notion that we should prohibit all works of art that allow the bad guys a point of view would decimate the Western canon; while the idea that audiences might blindly go out and emulate the behavior they see on stage is a canard that I’ve heard applied to Wagner’s “Ring” with equal ludicrousness — at least, I’ve not encountered any real-life cases of sibling incest following “Die Walküre” performances. Warts and all, “Klinghoffer” has survived for 23 years for a reason: it still represents a level of originality, certainly musically, that lifts it above much of the herd of carefully workshopped, safe contemporary American operas.
Banning “Klinghoffer” from the stage is not the right answer. Neither is celebrating it as a perfect work. Sadly, the debate surrounding this production has not left room for much middle ground between the “pro” of fully endorsing art’s right to say whatever it wants, and the “con” of not allowing art unfettered access to the historical record, particularly if there are living relatives to consider (the Klinghoffer daughters have come out strongly against the opera, and wrote a statement that the Met printed in the program). Alas, neither side has emerged with much understanding of the other, and the martyrdom of Leon Klinghoffer has blurred into the martyrdom of “Klinghoffer,” the opera. Which means that either you celebrate or castigate the Met for putting it on, and that the company, despite putting its best foot forward, once again provides a polarizing example of opera’s distance from the city it hoped, with this production, to engage.
“The Death of Klinghoffer” continues through November 15th. The Met has set up a special site and forum for audience reactions to the show at klinghoffer.metopera.org.