In 1991, an opera debuted in Brussels, Belgium. The Death of Klinghoffer focused on an incident aboard the Italian tourist ship Achille Lauro in 1985, when a disabled Jewish passenger was slain by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. The terrorists hijacked the boat off the coast of Egypt, shot Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair, then dumped the body overboard. All this was portrayed in melodramatic arias and choruses, with much emphasis given to the Palestinian party line.
Response to the opera was immediate and sulfuric. Scores of protests poured in. But none had the moral force of a statement made by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, daughters of the deceased: “We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic.” In response, composer John Adams, and librettist Alice Goodman insisted that they were only trying to give “equal voice” to Israel and the PLO.
But their title gave the show away. It was not The Murder of Klinghoffer, or The Assassination of Klinghoffer, or The Execution of Klinghoffer. It was The Death of Klinghoffer, as if the 67-year-old had suffered cardiac arrest or succumbed to an asthma attack while on the sea. Staging of the opera in other nations, including the U.S., provoked similar outrage. Following the radical Islamic attacks of September 11, 2001, the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a scheduled performance. In 2009, a scaled-down version went on at the Juilliard School of Music, but was condemned in Juilliard’s own periodical as “a political statement made by the composer to justify an act of terrorism by four Palestinians.” The school’s president disagreed. Juilliard and other institutions “have to be responsible for maintaining an environment in which challenging, as well as comforting, works of art are presented to the public.”
Only someone with extraordinary naiveté could imagine that a production of The Death of Klinghoffer could be staged in New York City in 2014 without a similar—and even more damaging—reaction. As it turns out, that’s a fair description of the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Peter Gelb. When his organization announced that the controversial opera would be presented this October, and that it would be simultaneously televised in theaters throughout the world, Jewish organizations responded en masse. Then the tabloids weighed in.
The New York Post ran an op-ed by Ronn Torossian headlined “Metropolitan Opera romanticizes one NYer’s murder.” Adams, Torossian wrote, “has said in composing The Death of Klingoffer he tried to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists. What humanity can—or should—be found in the murders of innocents? When do we get an opera painting the 9/11 bombers as ‘men of ideals?’” The Daily News editorial, “Sour notes at the opera,” cited an example from the libretto. One terrorist chorus begins, “Whenever poor men/ are gathered they can/ find Jews getting fat/ You know how to cheat/ the simple, exploit/ the virgin, pollute/ Where you have been exploited/ Defame those you cheated/ and break your own law/ with idolatry.”
Soon afterward, Gelb gave an excellent imitation of a circus tightrope walker. He announced that the Met would indeed go on with the presentation of The Death of Klinghoffer. However, it had canceled plans to televise the opera. The broadcasts “would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
This was too much for the New York Times. Its editorial, “The Met’s Bad Decision on a Controversial Opera,” castigated the general manager. “Mr. Gelb calls his decision a compromise, a bowing to the wishes of the Klinghoffer daughters and other Jewish critics of the John Adams opera. It is, in fact, a step backward for both the Met and for Mr. Gelb, who has championed the work of Mr. Adams, including this opera, which has been widely praised.”
In the end, everyone lost. Jewish critics, who still want the opera taken off the boards, were compared to organizations calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. Adams and Goodman, who claimed to be seeking a common humanity among the victims and terrorists, were revealed as proponents of moral equivalence. And Gelb’s non-Solomonic decision seems a slap in the face to New York City, site of the murder of some 3,000 people, all of them as vulnerable and disarmed as Leon Klinghoffer.
But a larger question will remain long after the dust settles. As the Middle East grows more inflamed and dangerous by the hour, and its atrocities become part of 24-hour news cycle, why this opera, and why now? At the Met, as on the battlefield, good timing usually brings victory. Bad timing, on the other hand, can ruin an opera, and wreck a reputation.