The Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer has once again thrust this highly controversial and deeply flawed John Adams opera into the news.
In May 2014, the Met announced it would cancel plans for a global simulcast of the opera “in response to concerns that the opera’s broadcast to 66 countries around the world could promote anti-Semitism and legitimize terrorism.” But since then, the Met has not changed its plans to stage the opera at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding the Anti-Defamation League’s advocacy on behalf of the Klinghoffer family in response to this controversy:
What has been ADL’s role in all of this?
ADL worked to convince the Metropolitan Opera that a simulcast of this opera in more than 2,000 theaters worldwide would be ill-advised at this time of rising anti-Semitism around the world and to ensure that audiences attending the October 2014 production would be fully aware of the Klinghoffer family’s objections.
Who was Leon Klinghoffer, and what exactly happened to him?
The terrorist murder of the 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer in 1985 was a watershed event for Americans and American Jews who were then mostly unaffected by terrorism. Klinghoffer’s death was senseless and horrific. Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, were on a cruise with a group of 11 friends celebrating the couple’s wedding anniversary. Palestinian terrorists took over the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, on October 7, 1985.
The terrorists, affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Front, separated the Americans and the British citizens from the more than 400 people on board. The following day, on October 8, the terrorists viciously shot Leon in the head and pushed him in his wheelchair overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.
Why is the John Adams opera such a lightning rod?
The opera juxtaposes the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew, and attempts to take this brutal act of terrorism and rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The opera has been a source of great distress for the Klinghoffer family and particularly his daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, who co-founded the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League that works to combat the threat of terrorism. They strongly believe that the opera is a terrible distortion and trivialization of their father’s death.
Does ADL believe the opera anti-Semitic, as some have suggested?
No. While the opera is highly problematic and has a strong anti-Israel bias, it is not anti-Semitic. A scene featured in the opera’s 1991 premiere, in which some of the Jewish characters exhibited stereotypical behavior, was removed by the composer and to our knowledge has not been featured in any production since that time.
Is it true that one of the characters in the opera makes anti-Semitic remarks?
Yes. In Act 2, Scene 1, the character of “Rambo,” the terrorist who subsequently shoots Leon Klinghoffer, sings an aria in which he taunts Leon with anti-Semitic invective. We do not view this openly articulated animus toward Jews as promoting anti-Semitism; rather, it exposes Rambo’s and the hijackers’ entrenched and destructive anti-Semitism. Other operas, films and plays feature characters whose anti-Semitism is part of their character and part of the plot’s development. In such cases, the character is anti-Semitic, but the opera, film or play is not.
If the opera is so offensive, why didn’t ADL ask the Met to cancel the entire production?
We reached a compromise. In our discussions with Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, we emphasized that our greatest concern would be that the opera, in touching such a large audience through the Met’s high-definition simulcast, would reach into countries where anti-Israel attitudes are at an all-time high and anti-Semitism is resurgent.
Mr. Gelb understood this, but defended the work on its artistic and musical merits.
While not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, ADL believes that this was the best solution given the fact that the opera will now only be seen by patrons attending the production at Lincoln Center in New York.
Moreover, the Met has volunteered space in the Playbill program for an essay by the Klinghoffer daughters explaining their point of view. It should be noted that other recent productions, such as one staged earlier this year by Long Beach Opera in California, have made similar accommodations to the Klinghoffer family.
Isn’t this a form of censorship?
We don’t believe so. In America, the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression, and the composer John Adams certainly has the freedom to write any opera of his choosing. But the First Amendment also gives us the right to raise our voice, and to appeal to the conscience of those who mount productions of the opera or any work of art, to do so respectfully and responsibly.
What conditions globally have made the airing of this opera in theaters so fraught with risk? Isn’t anti-Semitism largely a thing of the past?
In the United States, it is true that anti-Semitism is at its lowest recorded levels in history. But conditions are much different in other parts of the world. This summer witnessed an explosion of anti-Semitic violence and vitriol in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere around the globe. ADL’s recent Global 100 survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in 100 countries around the world found that 24 percent of the population of Western Europe harbors anti-Semitic attitudes; the number was even higher, in Eastern Europe, at 34 percent.
I heard ADL has not seen the opera. How can you comment on a production you haven’t seen?
Actually, ADL and the Klinghoffer daughters attended earlier performances, including the premiere of the original production, and we have watched subsequent productions available on video. We have also read the libretto.
So why object to this opera, and not to performances of others in the canon, such as Richard Wager’s “Der Meistersinger,” which some say embraces common anti-Semitic stereotypes once prevalent in 19th Century Germany?
Wagner’s operas are undeniable masterpieces. He was a flawed genius whose anti-Semitism came through in his voluminous writings and may have been woven into the ideological framework of some of his operas. But Wagner’s opera are fictional and modern performances are contextualized with commentary, and his operas are no longer controversial or contentious. “The Death of Klinghoffer,” however, portrays a real and practically current event that is, even by the composer’s own admission, used in the opera to make a larger political point that many Jews find offensive.
The fact that some have taken to the social media platform Twitter to make anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks about the controversy surrounding the Met production shows how this opera still has the potential to bring out manifestations of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes.