The Klinghoffer Family Reacts to The Death of Klinghoffer Opera

June 20, 2014


On June 17, 2014, following a series of conversations between ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman and the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera agreed to cancel a global simulcast of the controversial John Adams opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer” which had been scheduled to run this Fall. The Met also agreed to include a message from the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer in the opera’s program and on its web site, which makes clear the serious objections to the opera’s biased portrayal of their father’s death and its sympathetic view of his terrorist killers.

Background on the Achille Lauro Hijacking and the Murder of Leon Klinghoffer

On October 7, 1985, Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship, The Achille Lauro, off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. The terrorists, affiliated with Abu Abbas' Palestinian Liberation Front, separated the Americans and the British citizens from the over 400 people on board, and paid close attention to American Jewish passengers.

One of those singled out, was Leon Klinghoffer, a sixty-nine-year-old businessman, who was on the cruise with his beloved wife Marilyn and a group of eleven friends who summered together at the Jersey Shore – the "beach people" they called themselves. Leon, who had suffered two strokes, was wheelchair bound.

On October 8, the terrorists viciously shot Leon in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard.

For the family of Leon Klinghoffer, the attack was personally devastating. But to their lasting credit, his daughters were determined to ensure that Leon did not die in vain. Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer have made a lifelong commitment to combat terrorism, putting a personal face on the threat we all face and the critical need to confront it through legislation, education, advocacy and effective counter-terrorism strategies. In their work with the Anti-Defamation League's Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation, Lisa and Ilsa have made – and continue to make – a huge personal contribution to one of the major challenges of our time.

John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer

When the Klinghoffer sisters – who are both great supporters of the arts – first heard that John Adams was composing an opera about the Achille Lauro incident, they were concerned, yet open-minded about how this infamous terrorist attack would be portrayed.  Unfortunately, since its first production U.S. in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Death of Klinghoffer has been a source of great distress for Lisa and Ilsa.   

The main concern for ADL and for the Klinghoffer family regards the Opera's juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew, and that the opera attempts to take this brutal act of terrorism and rationalize, legitimize, and explain it.

While the opera is highly problematic and has a strong anti-Israel bias, it is not anti-Semitic.  A scene which was featured in the premier of the opera in 1991, in which some of the Jewish characters exhibited stereotypical behavior, was removed by the composer, and to ADL’s knowledge, has not been featured in any production since that time. Some have charged the version of the opera currently being performed with anti-Semitism based on the language used by one of its characters.  In Act 2, Scene 1, the character of “Rambo,” the terrorist who subsequently shoots Leon Klinghoffer, sings an aria in which he taunts Leon, saying: 

You are always complaining
Of your suffering
But wherever poor men
Are gathered they can
Find Jews getting fat.
You know how to cheat
The simple, exploit
The virgin, pollute
Where you have exploited
Defame those you cheated,
And break your own law
With idolatry.
Is one big Jew….

We do not  view this  openly articulated animus toward Jews as promoting anti-Semitism, rather it exposes Rambo and the hijacker’s entrenched and destructive anti-Semitism. This is akin to characters in other plays or movies (for example Nazi 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 play or film is not.  

Over the past two decades, the Opera has been performed intermittently, but rarely in the United States.  However, in recent years, The Death of Klinghoffer has become more popular, and productions have been mounted by prominent opera companies. Most recently, it was performed by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011, by the English National Opera in 2012, and by the Long Beach Opera in early 2014.