Was the Metropolitan Opera right to stage the allegedly anti-Semitic The Death of Klinghoffer?

Studio 360
Protesters at the Metropolitan Opera

Protesters holds signs during a demonstration across from Lincoln Center and the New York Metropolitan Opera in New York, October 20, 2014. New York's Metropolitan Opera was bracing for its most tumultuous opening in decades on Monday as protestors demonstrated against "The Death of Klinghoffer," the John Adams opera about the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian guerillas.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Rarely does an opera stir up street protests. Composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer did just that, however, when it recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The opera is based on the real-life hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in the Mediterranean in 1985. The Klinghoffer of the title was Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American tourist who was murdered by the hijackers and tossed overboard into the sea.

The opera’s detractors claim it is anti-Semitic. Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters, have been strongly outspoken critics of the opera since its premiere in 1991. In a program note for the Met's production, they say the opera, “rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”

"We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theater and music can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events," the daughters write. "'The Death of Klinghoffer' does no such thing.”

New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson has followed the controversy and reviewed the opera. He feels the question of whether or not the opera is anti-Semitic is a “red herring.”

“I think [the opera] has all kinds of problems — some of them political, some of them moral, some of them structural,” he says. “I don't think the project of trying to understand why people do terrible things is inherently either humanizing or justifying — but boy it's tricky.”

The opera’s “structural problems” have been cited in some reviews as one reason it is easy for viewers to get the impression the opera presents a one-sided view of the hijacking.

“The [four] terrorists dominate the whole first half and you get each one of them in turn laying out their case and taking control of the ship,” Davidson explains. “You don't actually hear from Klinghoffer himself, or his wife Marilyn, who in a way you could say are the moral center of opera, until after intermission.”

In addition, Davidson points out, the first line of the opera is a Palestinian chorus singing, "My father's house was razed in 1948 when the Israelis passed over our street."

“It's a hugely inflammatory line,” Davidson says. “To begin the opera with that is really provocative, because it's an incredibly complicated history. To toss that off and say, ‘Well the Israelis came and razed my father's house’? You're really asking for trouble.”

When the audience finally does hear from Klinghoffer, he seems to be a sane, likable person. In a scene Davidson calls the “linchpin of the opera,” Klinghoffer has “a very humane aria, which is followed by Rambo, the terrorist, spouting a lot of the really hardcore anti-Semitic lines that have been quoted out of context — and it's a crazy contrast.”

“Musically, there is a very clear contrast between Klinghoffer's passion, sanity and humane quality and the terrorist's hopped up, ideological and murderous intensity,” Davidson continues. “Adams does well to distinguish [through music] the characters and groups and points of view.”

The true problem, in Davidson’s view, is that composer John Adams was working with a libretto by Alice Goodman that didn't do that nearly as well. “Why he thought that libretto was as strong as he does and why he didn't demand really fundamental changes to it, I don't understand,” Davidson says. “I think it is a fundamental, unhealable problem of the opera.”

On balance, Davidson believes the Metropolitan Opera has every right to stage the opera, even in a time of increased tensions in the Middle East and around the world. Despite its flaws, he says, “at the core of the opera is a really strong score. [It] is not perfect, either, but it has some incredible moments...and some of the action is incredibly gripping.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen