The Show Will Go On: New York Met to Produce Anti-Semitic Opera

June 25, 2014

4 min read

The New York Metropolitan Opera has decided to cancel the simultaneous broadcast of controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” during its upcoming season but has agreed to host the show in the upcoming season.

The American opera, by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, portrays the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro passenger liner by the Palestine Liberation Front, during which Jewish-American hostage Leon Klinghoffer was murdered and thrown overboard.  The English-language opera has been controversial since its first performances in Brussels and New York in 1991.

On October 7, 1985, four PLF militants hijacked the Achille Lauro liner off Egypt. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons.  When the ship was refused entry to the port at Tartus, the hijackers killed the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer.  The ship then returned to Egypt and the hijackers abandoned the liner after two days of negotiations, in exchange for safe passage.  The four were ultimately arrested in Italy.

The events inspired several dramatizations, including the opera.  In particular, the opera was controversial for its sympathetic portrayal of the hijackers and their grievances.  Adams, Goodman and director Peter Sellars repeatedly claimed that they were trying to give equal voice to both Israelis and Palestinians with respect to the political background.

“We are not criminal. We are not vandals. But men of ideas.”

Following the New York premiere of the opera, Klinghoffer’s two daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, expressed their dissatisfaction.  “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.”

The Met has scheduled the performance as part of its upcoming theater season, and as is its practice, had slated the play for simultaneous broadcast to some 200 movie theaters, making it accessible to audiences which would otherwise not be able to see the stage performance.  Earlier this month, however, the opera house announced that while the show would go on, it would no longer be broadcast.

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“I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” Met General Manager Peter Gelb was quoted as saying by operaworld.com, “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 decision was made after discussions between Gelb and Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, representing the Klinghoffer sisters.

“Obviously, from our point of view and that of the Klinghoffer sisters, we would have hoped that the Metropolitan Opera would have stayed away from mounting such a problematic opera,” Foxman said, in a statement released by ADL.

“We certainly did not want to see the Met production simulcast into theaters around the world. The Met was very open to hearing our concerns. After listening to our views, they have agreed to cancel the simulcasts and to take steps to ensure that the Klinghoffer family’s perspective is clearly heard by opera patrons.”

Promotional image from the Opera (Photo: New York Metropolitan Opera)
Promotional image from the Opera (Photo: New York Metropolitan Opera)

Adams and Goodman reacted negatively to the decision.  Adams called the move “regrettable,” saying it promotes “the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing”.

“My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder,” the composer wrote. “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.”

Goodman said she was surprised “that the Met did not have a plan in place as to how it was going to address the controversy that this opera always brings with it.”

She questioned the logic behind cancelling the simulcast. “The whole idea of pogroms emerging from the simulcast of a modern opera is more than faintly absurd. I think it is very unfortunate. It seems to me…a wrong and a contradictory reaction.

“There is nothing anti-semitic in Klinghoffer apart from one aria which is sung by an anti-semitic character and is clearly flagged as such. The simulcasts from the Met are watched and loved by all kinds of people who couldn’t possibly get to a live performance. The notion that this can be watched live [in New York] but not in a cinema is bizarre and foolish, and I regret it.”

In addition to cancelling the broadcasts, which would have expanded the show’s audience to 66 countries around the world, the Met agreed to print a statement from the Klinghoffer sisters in the theater program.

“’The Death of Klinghoffer’ perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it,” Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer said in the ADL statement. “The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.”

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