This fall the Metropolitan Opera in New York City introduced an opera titled The Death of Klinghoffer by American composer John Adams. Though it was the Met's first mounting of the opera, the company is credited with previous productions of two other Adams operas, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China.
The three make a trip of atypical opera themes, but no new opera brought the Met as much controversy as Klinghoffer. Protesters in the plaza of Lincoln Center demonstrated before its premiere on October 20, imploring patrons to boycott the work. That capped off no scant criticism showered on the Met for choosing to present the work at all, even though it had its world premiere over 20 years ago, in 1991 in Belgtium, plus successful full and symphonic performances worldwide since.
Why so much fuss? There is a murder at the end of the opera -- Leon Klinghoffer -- but murders are standard fare in the opera world. Unlike the killing brought on by jealousy as in Carmen or misplaced distrust as in Othello, the murder in this story was of an everyday American citizen caught by chance in the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The story is based on an actual occurrence in October 1985, when a quarter of young men of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the MS Achille Lauro, and Klinghoffer, an American Jew traveling with his wife on a birthday celebration, became the murder victim. The randomness of the event, and the innocence of the victim, make the murder especially poignant.
As the opera was in preparation at the Met, loud protests erupted from those who felt that it supported terrorism and its production should be cancelled. Does this tale encourage some other act of terrorism to provide the story for another opera, as some critics maintained? Does it become an anti-Semitic story because the victim was Jewish?
I am only an occasional opera goer, unlikely to have seen Klinghoffer, but a friend invited me to go with him, and we attended a performance last weekend at Lincoln Center. By then there were no protesters outside and barely an empty seat inside.
Watching as the opera unfolded and the ship seized by the kidnappers, it seemed puzzling to imagine that the piece somehow condones terrorism. My friend (who is not Jewish) and I (who am) looked at each other and said that it is a far stretch to find the kidnappers heroic. They terrorized a ship full of people on a cruise, murdering the most helpless passenger, an elderly man confined to a wheelchair. Presumably the composer's spokesperson, Klinghoffer confront the kidnappers as he is about to be killed: "We're human. We're the kind of people you like to kill."
My friend and I speculated what percentage of the audience that night was Jewish. It's impossible to know, of course, but I hope that the percentage was large, as the reception was fervent.
The opera is serious and holds the listener in its grip with strong voices and an especially large and powerful chorus that alternately portrays exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews. It's an essential part of the opera and it and its chorus master received well merited applause.
It would serve the world if today's terrorists who kill "the kind of people you like to kill" could put away their rifles -- and hatchets -- to witness terrorism brought powerfully to condemnation through a work of art. The Death of Klinghoffer does that.
Stanley Ely writes about past world events in his new memoir, Life Up Close, in paperback and ebook.