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.