'Death of Klinghoffer' protests: Does opera promote humanity or obscenity?

Protesters say the Metropolitan Opera's 'The Death of Klinghoffer' rewrites history and glorifies terrorism, but others say art can help people see humanity in their enemies.

Mike Segar/Reuters
A protester holds a sign during a rally across from Lincoln Center and the New York Metropolitan Opera during a demonstration in New York Monday against 'The Death of Klinghoffer,' the John Adams opera about the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian guerillas.

In the opening chorus of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the controversial opera that opened to outraged denunciations Monday at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a group of weary Palestinian women lament the loss of their fathers’ houses, “Where, on a hot day, one could sit in shade under a tree, and have a glass of something cool.”

When the male Palestinian voices join in later, however, the chorus becomes angry and violent: “Let the supplanter look upon his work,” they sing of their now-devastated homes. “Our faith will take the stones he broke and break his teeth.”

For the hundreds of incensed protesters – including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani – who gathered Monday in front of the world-renowned opera house, “The Death of Klinghoffer” presents a historical distortion and outrageous affront to the real-life events the opera depicts: In 1985, militants from the Palestinian Liberation Organization hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and then murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew, and then tossed his body overboard.

But the opera, considered a modern masterpiece by many critics, is expressly an attempt to approach a complicated theme with empathy, challenging listeners to explore the full humanity even of those they might hate.

“The whole point of the opera is we are all related,” librettist Alice Goodman told NPR. “It has to do with the humanity even of the person you least wish to acknowledge the humanity of. It's so important. That people you most hate are human beings.”

More than a year ago, Rolling Stone magazine stirred nationwide outrage after it published a cover of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that many thought cast the teen as a rock star. Now, the Met's production of “Klinghoffer” is raising some of the same questions about where the line should be drawn between trying to understand people moved to evil acts and glamorizing them.

The opera concludes with an emotionally cacophonous monologue of Klinghoffer’s wife, Marilyn, who has just been told by the ship’s captain that her husband has been murdered.

“You embraced them! And now you come, the Captain, every vein stiff with adrenaline, the touch of Palestine on your uniform, and offer me your arm. I would spit on you but my mouth is dry. I have no spit and no tears yet.”

It’s the kind of epic human passion set to music that defines the art of opera, but for the protesters, the vivid emotions expressed by Palestinian characters, including the murderers themselves, are offensive and obscene.

“The romanticizing of terrorism only makes a greater threat,” proclaimed former Mayor Giuliani during a boisterous rally outside the opera, where well-dressed patrons walked through a maze of police barricades to attend the Met’s première of the work by composer John Adams.

Giuliani, who also tried to shut down a controversial art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art during his tenure in 1999 after he objected to a painting of the Virgin Mary composed in a medium of elephant dung, also said the opera’s message “supports terrorism.”

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, also railed against those attending the opera, saying that they cover up their anti-Semitism “with the perfume of the word ‘Art.’ And they think no one notices the stench.”

The Republicans were also joined at the protest by Democrats, including former New York Gov. David Paterson and current US Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Eliot Engel.

The swirl of raw political passions surrounding opera’s Met première comes as many continue to worry about rising anti-semitism in Europe after Israel responded to Hamas rocket fire with a major military campaign that killed 2,100 Palestinians, including 1,500 civilians, and destroyed more than 18,000 homes; 66 Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians were killed.

For Met officials, it is precisely this wrenching context that gives “The Death of Klinghoffer” its cultural resonance. They say that a work that “grapples with the complexities of an unconscionable real-life act of violence does not mean it should not be performed.”

“The opera is not anti-Semitic,” Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, told NPR. “It's not a glorification of terrorism. Any work of art that deals with conflict has to be authentic, has to explore both sides of the conflict. It explains the motives of the Palestinian terrorists, but that doesn't mean it supports them.”

The emotional depiction of the Palestinians, however, has incensed Klinghoffer’s surviving daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, since it first premièred in 1991. The Met included a statement from the two victims of the terrorist murder in the opera’s playbill.  

“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 Klinghoffer daughters said. “The Death of Klinghoffer does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”

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