Outside the New York Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“The Death of Klinghoffer” which premiered in 1989 and previously has been seen in the United Kingdom, United States and elsewhere, was inspired – spawned would be a better term – by the 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking. Terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front, a faction of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheel-chair bound American Jew, and dumped his body overboard. The opera does not just present a false moral equivalence between Klinghoffer and his murderers, it romanticizes Palestinian terrorists and the false narrative that Palestinian Arabs are driven to such “resistance” because the Jews stole their land.
In two recent exchanges between CAMERA and Met General Manager Peter Gelb, Gelb made several untenable assertions regarding “The Death of Klinghoffer” and his decision to stage and broadcast the production. The Met’s position, as suggested by Gelb’s responses, indicates factual misunderstanding regarding the Arab conflict with Israel, moral obtuseness when it comes to the crime of Palestinian terrorism and, perhaps, financial desperation.
Gelb told CAMERA that “John Adams has said that in composing ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ he tried to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in their victims. Tom Morris, the director of the Met’s new production, believes that the opera’s most important contribution is in providing an opportunity for the audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict and pattern of abhorrent violent acts.”
This sort of vague, ethereal response used to be known as pettifogging; filibustering will do. In fact, as the Wiesenthal Center noted two years ago, after Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters watched the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 1991 performance of the opera, they wrote in The New York Times (Sept. 11, 1991) that “We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the cold-blooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the murder of an innocent, disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”
Looking for equivalent humanity among terrorists and their victims is a fool’s errand at best, a distraction of propagandists at worst. Likewise Gelb’s invocation of librettist Alice Goodman’s alleged attempt “to understand the hijackers and their motivations.”
Obtuse, or bullheaded
This recalls the French saying that “to understand is to excuse.” Terrorism is a crime under international law in no small part because terrorists deny the humanity of their victims. By refusing to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant (never mind that terrorists are illegal combatants), Klinghoffer’s murderers violated rules of warfare and obligations of combatants. Terrorists, like those who murdered Klinghoffer, reject such civilized restrictions. “The Death of Klinghoffer” costumes this rejection as a high-minded, if regretful, necessity of the oppressed. Hence also its false comparison of Israel’s control of territories claimed by the Arabs and the Nazi imposition of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Gelb claims the Met’s staging and broadcast of the opera will provide audiences an opportunity to wrestle with the underlying issues of the Arab conflict with Israel. The phrases he uses, including “seemingly endless conflict,” “almost unanswerable questions,” and “pattern of abhorrent, violent acts” apparently are meant to convey understanding and sympathy. They fail.
Really to understand Klinghoffer’s killers would be to recognize their antisemitism, their nihilism. Adams/Goodman’s treatment of their Palestinian terrorists as 20th century, Middle Eastern versions of Robin Hood and His Merry If Troubled Men does not help audiences understand the violent continuation of the Palestinian conflict with Israel and Palestinian Arabs’ attitudes toward Jews. For that, a couple of days exposure to Palestinian Authority Television (directed by the “moderate” Fatah movement), with its modernized blood libels and refreshed versions of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim international Jewish conspiracies would do as an introduction. The “slaughter-the-Jews” children’s programming on Hamas television in the Gaza Strip could follow.
There’s been no wrestling by a Met production with questions of shared humanity between, for example, night-riding Klansmen and their black victims or Chinese leaders and soldiers and those massacred in Tiananmen Square. These would be obvious apologias and plainly polemical, not artistic. So too with “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
Gelb also tries to justify the Met’s decision to stage the opera on artistic as well as moral and intellectual grounds. Instead of pettifogging, this requires hyperbole. Gelb calls composer John Adams “the most important American composer of opera of the last 30 years.” Those who know opera understand this amounts to damning with faint praise. There is now, and historically has been, a dearth of important American composers of opera. Certainly, it would be unconvincing at best to rank Adams with the Italian and other European opera masters (nearly all of whom have been represented in recent Met productions), and even with acclaimed modern composers such as Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten, Shostikovich and the American Samuel Barber.
Morally repugnant, artistically shallow
More importantly, few critics or aficionados would support Gelb’s claim that the opera in question is a “musical masterpiece,” even among those who might see nothing objectionable in the work’s perspective on the events it depicts. On the other hand, it’s much easier to find recognized experts who damn the opera, pointing out its misuse of music and libretto to sway or form viewers’ opinions.
Richard Taruskin, the eminent American musicologist, critic, and the author of the single-most ambitious project in musicological history (a six-volume, 3,000-page Oxford History of Western Music), wrote in a New York Times article, “Music’s Dangers And The Case For Control” (Dec. 9, 2001):
The libretto commits many notorious breaches of evenhandedness, bu
t the greatest one is to be found in Mr. Adams’s music. In his interview, the composer repeats the oft drawn comparison between the operatic Leon Klinghoffer and the ‘sacrificial victim’ who is ‘at the heart of the Bach Passions.’ But his music, precisely insofar as it relies on Bach’s example, undermines the facile analogy… ‘timeless’ tones accompany virtually all the utterances of the choral Palestinians or the terrorists, beginning with the opening chorus.
They underscore the words spoken by the fictitious terrorist Molqui: ‘We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals.’ Together with an exotically ‘Oriental’ obbligato bassoon, they accompany the fictitious terrorist Mamoud’s endearing reverie about his favorite love songs. They add resonance to the fictitious terrorist Omar’s impassioned yearnings for a martyr’s afterlife; and they also appear when the ship’s captain tries to mediate between the terrorists and the victims.
They do not accompany the victims, except in the allegorical ‘Aria of the Falling Body,’ sung by the slain Klinghoffer’s remains as they are tossed overboard by the terrorists. Only after death does the familiar American middle-class Jew join the glamorously exotic Palestinians in mythic timelessness. Only as his body falls lifeless is his music exalted to a comparably romanticized spiritual dimension.
In other words, “Klinghoffer” is agit-prop masquerading as art. Prof. Taruskin has written that Goodman’s “claim of evenhandedness in the opening Choruses of Exiled Palestinians and Exiled Jews rings hollow. The first sings of how ‘My father’s house was razed in 1948, when the Israelis passed over our street,’ against a backdrop of graffiti daubed on a concrete wall, intriguingly proclaiming ‘Warsaw 1943, Bethlehem 2005.’ Enter the exiled Jews, all in kippot and headscarves, passively planting trees on the allegedly usurped land.”
More than 20 years ago, in his review of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s premiere of the opera, The New York Times chief music critic, Edward Rothstein, questioned the presentation of Jews and Palestinian Arabs “as symmetrical victims of each other’s hatreds.” Rothstein later wrote that the opera’s depiction of its Jewish characters reduced them “to petty triviality” compared to their Palestinian counterparts. “This ideological posing is morally tawdry,” he stated. Adams implicitly acknowledged what was up when, criticizing the Los Angeles Opera for cancelling “Klinghoffer” some years ago, the composer ridiculously charged that “in this country, there is almost no option for the other side, no space for the Palestinian point of view.” Really?
Then where’s the Met production of “Death of Arafat,” which would portray brave Jews returning to eretz Yisrael only to confront incessant religious and ethnic bigotry and violence from their neighbors? Where’s the movie version of “Munich,” which shows the PLO killers of Israel’s Olympic athletes as the murderers they were and not in ambiguous shades of gray while tarnishing the Israeli agents who tracked them down as their moral equivalents? Where’s the best-selling book by a former U.S. president called “The Arab World: Minority Apartheid, Not Peace?” Sauteed in fashionable anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish sympathy for Palestinian Arabs, Gelb doesn’t comprehend what a small pan he’s simmering in.
Controversy for the sake of cash?
Does the staging and broadcast of “The Death of Klinghoffer” tell us anything about decision-making, and self-justification, at the financially pressed Met? The opera combines Jew-baiting and controversy, probably ensuring ticket sales. But that’s the problem: The Wiesenthal Center’s Shimon Samuels wrote in 2012 that three years earlier “a member of the Julliard Association protested a performance at the foremost New York music school, saying: ‘Julliard has honored an outrageous and immoral justification of the murder of an American citizen and an aged Jew as a work of art… The Julliard School, in presenting this opera, is responsible for giving sanction to an anti-Semitic and criminal act.'” The Met’s actions regarding “Klinghoffer” are no less outrageous. This is not a matter of artistic censorship but rather of moral, and artistic, integrity. The Met will demonstrate the latter two virtues by cancelling “Klinghoffer.”
Sponsors for the high definition televised broadcasts of “Klinghoffer” include the Bloomberg Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation and Toll Brothers Builders, not known until now for supporting anti-Jewish, anti-Israel propaganda. Likewise, The Met is subsidized by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, and U.S. departments of Education and State. They ought to be appalled by any connection with this “morally tawdry” production. On Broadway, Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” got a laugh about a play, “Springtime for Hitler,” within the play. That’s because the very concept was ridiculous. The Met’s defense of producing and broadcasting “The Death of Klinghoffer” is ridiculous, but not funny. Antisemitic propaganda never is.
You can send an effective, personalized message using the above information as background:
• Contact the Metropolitan Opera to protest the staging of this work of propaganda and its global dissemination: General manager Peter Gelb at Pgelb@metopera.org; Associate Press Director Sam Neuman at SNeuman@metopera.org or call 212-870-7457; F. Paul Driscoll, Editor of Opera News magazine at email@example.com.
• Contact Fathom Events, the company that simulcasts the Met: Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-295-8587. Ask Fathom Events to decline to simulcast the offensive, bigoted opera.
• Contact sponsors of the HD simulcast:
(1) The Neubauer Family Foundation c/o Parentebeard LLC 215-947-2100.
(2) Bloomberg foundation, Ty Trippet at email@example.com and 212-617-2443, write in their Customer Support feedback form; call customer support phone number 212-318-2000; Tweet to @Bloomberg.
(3) Toll Brothers Sr. Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Kira Sterling at KSTERLING@tollbrothersinc.com and 215-938-8220; call the Corporate Headquarters at 215-938-8000.
• Contact the media: Write to The New York Times at firstname.lastname@example.org; write to The New York Post at email@example.com; write to The New York Daily News at firstname.lastname@example.org; write to your local and Jewish press.
If Met leaders – board members if not Gelb and his staff – admit to themselves what the opera really is, they will act to replace the simulcast with another work. If they do not, the reputation of The Met will be stained for years to come.
On Tuesday, June 17 the Metropolitan Opera cancelled plans to simulcast the John Adams/Alice Goodman opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” on theater screens around the world, reducing the potential audience for this antisemitic work by hundreds of thousands. This comes after a deluge of protests via letters and phone calls to The Met, to the media, to sponsors of the simulcast and the simulcast company.
CAMERA is pleased by the cancellation of the broadcast of this defamator
y opera but continues to deplore the performance itself. The prestigious Met stage is no place for a work that presents a false moral equivalence between the innocent victim of terrorism and his murderers.
As to the public explanation of the move, a Wall Street Journal Story reported:
The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday canceled its plans for a live, global broadcast of next season’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” amid concerns that it could fan anti-Semitism.[…]
The company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said Tuesday that he had received hundreds of emails over the past 10 days calling on him to cancel the transmission of the controversial opera by American composer John Adams. “The Death of Klinghoffer” depicts a 1985 cruise-ship hijacking and the murder of a Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, by Palestinian terrorists.
Mr. Gelb said he didn’t believe the 1991 opera was anti-Semitic but added that he was aware of “great concern, which I think is justified,” about “anything that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as pro-terrorist.”
“I have to be sensitive to that,” he said.
The show will go on as planned at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, with eight performances in October and November…”
An important question: If the Metropolitan is canceling the simulcast broadcast out of concern it could fan antisemitism globally why is it acceptable to stage the opera in New York and fan antisemitism there?