See it first. Then decide.
That’s the Metropolitan Opera’s ad slogan for The Death of Klinghoffer, a controversial work by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman that has been polarizing the public and inciting protest since 1991.
The opera, accused of promoting terrorism and anti-Semitism, has been dubbed “The Terror Opera” in some corners of the press. But supporters say the protesters, most of whom have never seen it or even listened to a recording, are missing the point.
Last week, on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, the demonstrators gathered at Lincoln Center Plaza included a small army in wheelchairs symbolizing solidarity with Leon Klinghoffer, the frail elderly man killed by PLO terrorists on the hijacked cruise ship Achille Laurel in 1989.
Ticket holders in gowns and tuxedos gingerly ascended the steps outside the Met past news cameras, security crews, and protesters screaming, “Shame on you!”
“It wasn’t your usual night at the opera,” says Kate Bolick, a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who was among the audience that evening. “Inside the hall there was a crackle in the air, a buzz, a wondering if something unexpected was about to happen, and what would that be? After the first aria we heard some loud booing from the audience; then someone started chanting, The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!”
Although she was startled to hear the woman in the seat beside her jeering at the singers, Bolick says she did not detect anti-Semitism or pro-terrorist sentiment in the opera which, she says, “explores human sources of terrorism in a compelling, devastating way, without ever justifying the tragic end.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Former Governor Pataki believe the opera is politically inflammatory and should be shut down. They were among the throng of protesters outside the Met. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio stayed home but lambasted his predecessor for not respecting the Met’s freedom of speech. Like most of the protesters, none of the aforementioned politicians has actually seen the production; however, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was there on opening night; and at the end of the performance she was spotted rising to her feet for a standing ovation.
“I don’t see the opera as making a political statement, but rather undertaking a deep and nuanced exploration of human motivation and behavior,” says Susan Scheid, a New York-based author who was in the audience on opening night in Brooklyn in 1991.
“There are some, I think Giuliani among them, who immediately bridle at any attempt to understand the terrorist mind,” says Scheid. “But it’s important to look deeply inside implacable conflicts like those in the Middle East, and to recognize that terror is not committed by alien beings, but by human beings. Failure to recognize that dooms us to more of the same.”
Early critical reviews have cautiously praised the 2014 production. The New York Times‘ Anthony Tommasini writes, “This is one of Mr. Adams’s most inspired and personal scores, with episodes of haunting, hazy music in which, over subdued, ominous, sustained bass tones in the orchestra, instruments spin out melodic lines full of ancient-sounding curlicues. And Ms. Goodman’s poetic libretto, though often enigmatic, is powerfully so.”
By contrast, the 1991 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was instantly denounced by the press. Times critic Edward Rothstein led the attack, savaging the opera’s musical score and libretto, as well as its ideology. A Wall Street Journal review said the opera “turns the sport-killing of a frail old Jew in a wheelchair into a cool meditation on meaning and myth, life and death.”
In response to the opera’s rocky premiere, a problematic scene broadly satirizing an American Jewish family, The Rumors, was cut from the first act. But it was too late: the opera’s reputation was set. After Klinghoffer, John Adams’ career was damaged and the career of librettist Alice Goodman (an American-born Jew, who said that she had based the characters in the offending scene off members of her own family) was ruined.
“Taking Klinghoffer to Brooklyn, to the white-hot epicenter of Jewish culture in the US, was probably a daft thing to do,” Adams ruefully admitted in a 2002 interview quoted in “Klinghoffer in Brooklyn Heights,” a 2005 essay by UCLA musicologist Robert Fink.
Fink argues that the original outrage against the opera was not so much an ideological reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as to “specific nuances in the satirical portrayal of American Jewish characters in one controversial scene later cut from the opera.” In Fink’s view, the opera is “significantly impoverished without this pivotal scene” because the omission has the effect of “sequestering valuable evidence of the creators’ complex intent.”
With the Rumors excised from the script, the Klinghoffers are the only individual Jewish characters in the opera, and they do not sing until the second act. The revision creates what New Yorker critic Alex Ross calls “a curious imbalance in the structure”, in which the Palestinians hold the stage for the entire first act, opening the door for misunderstanding by audience members who are already irritated an impatient with the opera’s premise. But is The Death of Klinghoffer truly anti-Semetic?
See it first; then decide if the rumors are right.