Operas often involve a dramatic death in the final act. But the real-life, cold-blooded murder of a disabled Jewish man should not serve as an evening’s entertainment for the New York glitterati.
The events of 1985 are hard to forget. PLO hijackers seized the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro and held hundreds of passengers hostage. Among them was 69 year old, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. He was separated from the others, shot in the head and chest, and thrown overboard along with his wheelchair.
This season, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb intends to stage “the first-ever Met performances” of John Adams’ shock-jock modern opera, The Death of Klinghoffer.
Conflating the deliberate murder of an American citizen with the plight of the Palestinian people was bound to create controversy. But composer John Adams says he didn’t write Klinghoffer to be controversial.
In a promotional video teaser on the Met’s website, he says, “I did it because opera is the art form that goes to the max… and in a sense terrorism is the same thing. Terrorism is the act that goes to the max—the act of desperation.”
Throughout its noble four hundred year history, opera has ignited passions and transported audiences to heights of emotional intensity. The transcendence of opera can inspire us; it can inform and even provoke us. But there are moral limits—as one might imagine if the opera tried to justify and “explain” the lynching of an American slave in the South.
When the hijackers of the Achille Lauro tried to escape to Tunisia after their bloody deed, President Ronald Reagan had the fortitude to force the plane to land in Italy, and the Italians convicted the terrorists. Should they have written a libretto instead?
Mr. Gelb does have some friends. Brian Wise, a journalist who covers opera for WQXR—a radio station once known to all New Yorkers as “the radio station of the New York Times” but now owned by New York Public Radio—praised the opera in 2012, noting: “No mere caricatures, the hijackers are heard reciting their ideals through soaring arias and reflective choruses.”
Mr. Wise might be referencing the aria of the hijacker named Rambo, who informs the listener that “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.”
Rambo’s aria echos the views of Der Stürmer, Julius Streicher’s Nazi newspaper, without a hint of irony or condemnation. The leitmotif of the morally and physically crippled Jew who should be disposed of has been heard before—and it did not end well.
Mocking his helpless hostage, Rambo tells Klinghoffer, “America is one big Jew.” More’s the pity that a composer and a librettist as talented as John Adams and Alice Goodman should have crafted such a callow work.
Perhaps we are meant to understand that the terrorists had “ideals.” Hijacker Molqi will sing to the audience that, “We are soldiers fighting a war. We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals.”
Killing an innocent man as an act of terror happens to be a crime under international law. It is also a hideous act of inhumanity. One might call it a “political snuff murder”—and Mr. Adams has written a “snuff opera.”
Mr. Adams is entitled to his views about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, however misguided or ill-conceived. Appropriating Palestinian grievances for a rhapsody to terrorism is quite another matter. Perhaps any spectacle, even a hideous episode of anti-Semitic fulmination, is attractive when the Met’s sagging budget is at stake. But other artistic groups have taken a stauncher view. In 2001 the Boston Symphony canceled a scheduled performance of concert excerpts from Klinghoffer and the Glyndebourne Festival and Los Angeles Opera Company have also declined to stage it.
Richard Taruskin, author of the six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, wrote in the Sunday New York Times in 2001 that, “The Death of Klinghoffer trades in the tritest undergraduate fantasies.” He accused Adams of romanticizing terrorists. The editor of London’s Opera magazine dismissed Alice Goodman’s libretto as “desperately naïve,” suggesting that the opera is “best left unperformed.” A critic in Opera magazine declared it “an operatic corpse.”
Peter Davis of New York Magazine, said in June 2003, “Leaving politics aside…what strikes me as most offensive about the work is its sheer ineptitude…. Goodman’s libretto is worse than naïve –it fails on just about every level…. All [Adams]…has managed to produce is a hopelessly meandering, tensionless score that sounds like the most vapid New Age pap.”
Mr. Klinghoffer’s own daughters have called the opera “anti-Semitic,” “historically naïve,” and “appalling.” But this opera involves more than an affront to the Klinghoffer family. It affects every American and every world citizen who is a potential target of terrorism. Mr. Gelb’s disclaimer that “the Met is not endorsing any political views expressed in the libretto” rings hollow. The assassination of a civilian is not a “political view.” It is a crime.
When hundreds of new American operas are waiting to be staged, it is hard to understand why The Death of Klinghoffer could trigger a “duty” for the Met to select this work. Mr. Gelb has already allocated Met resources to stage two other operas by John Adams in the last seven years.
And it is no secret that during Mr. Gelb’s tenure, the Met has found itself in a precarious position. The 2012-13 season was a financial disaster, with the company taking in only 69 percent of potential box office revenues—the lowest percentage in over a decade. Met ticket prices average a hefty $160, and with diminishing sales, the opera has come to lean increasingly on its donors. The moral hazard of venturing into the Middle East for funding—as universities have learned the hard way—hasn’t slowed down Mr. Gelb for a New York minute.
Mr. Gelb was preparing to give this production a huge international platform. Responding to public outrage, he has now canceled global simulcasts of the opera in 2,000 theaters and 65 countries – a clear admission of the opera’s potential to spread hatred. The eight New York performances should be canceled as well.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Gelb’s choice will further diminish the Metropolitan Opera’s standing as an icon of American culture. In The Death of Klinghoffer, propaganda masquerades as artistic expression. This so-called musical masterpiece flirts with incitement to violence and traffics in hate speech, while terrorism is romanticized. An alarm must be sounded loudly and clearly enough to pierce all moral obfuscation.
Met Opera sponsors such as Bloomberg, the Toll Brothers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Neubauer Family Foundation, should not wish to be associated with such a morally bankrupt production.
And countless Met subscribers may wish to ask Mr. Gelb one more question: What can we expect at the Met as an encore? An operatic rendering of The Beheading of Daniel Pearl?