"The Death of Klinghoffer:" Frequently Asked Questions

  • September 24, 2014

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.

The John Adams 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. Share via Twitter Share via Facebook