An Opera's Sound and Fury

The Met's 'The Death of Klinghoffer' premiered to great controversy.

In his radio days, Ed Gardner once quipped, "Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings." But what about when an opera draws blood?

In a surreal and immediate confluence of opera and politics, the John Adams work The Death of Klinghoffer, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Monday night amid considerable controversy. Several hundred people, including members of congress, former New York Governor David Paterson, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, gathered outside to protest the opera, which centers on the story of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

The titular character is Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jew, who is shot and killed by the Palestinian hijackers and thrown overboard along with his wheelchair. It's easy to imagine why many people, including regular champions of the arts, would be deeply unsettled by the story. Klinghoffer's daughters Ilsa and Lisa were two such opponents. In a widely circulated opinion piece they wrote:

We have always been strong supporters of the arts, and believe they can play an important role in examining and understanding significant world events. “Klinghoffer” does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. The opera rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.

Their criticism of the production is that it humanizes "the four terrorists responsible for his murder" and provides a context for their indefensible act. This criticism was amplified by the hundreds of protesters at Lincoln Center on Monday night as well as a few attendees inside the venue who reportedly scattered boos and chants through the opera's first night.

Set beside a context of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, which accompanied a highly controversial war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza this summer, the opera couldn't have come at a worse time or a better one, depending on whom you ask.

“The romanticizing of terrorism only makes a greater threat,” Giuliani told an assembled crowd before the performance. Earlier in the day, Giuliani's opposition came under fire from current Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said Giuliani's position wasn't in step with "the American way." He added, "The American way is to respect freedom of speech."

Writing in The Guardian, Eli Valley, who attended the performance, pushed back against the idea that giving Palestinian terrorists a literal stage would cause him to emerge from the opera believing that Israel should be destroyed or that Jews are evil: "Of course, that didn’t happen, despite the fury of those with the weakest faith in human intellect—and maybe the greatest faith in the hypnotic power of art."

While critics worked to separate the merit of the art from the mire of the politics, Klinghoffer represents more than the death of a disabled man who is murdered for no reason other than his religion. It also represents more than the extremist segment of a universally stepped-on group of people. Klinghoffer, in this staging, represents the dialectical dysfunction of our era.

One encounter, highlighted by the New York Daily News, ably summed up the mess:

About 40 minutes into the two-hour, 50-minute production, a man started yelling repeatedly: “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!” A woman in the audience replied, “No one here is trying to forgive.”