A Night at the Opera

This October, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House will present “The Death of Klinghoffer”.  Since it was first performed, the piece has engendered a great deal of controversy and caused, I have no doubt, tremendous pain. In 1985, hijackers from Yasser Arafat’s PLO hijacked a cruise ship called the Achille Lauro. One of the passengers was Leon Klinghoffer, Z’L, a 60 year old wheelchair-bound American Jew originally from New York City’s Lower East Side. He and his wife, Marilyn, had taken the cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.  He was singled out specifically because he was a Jew and an American and shot to death.  In a nutshell, that’s what the opera is about.

October 7th will mark the 29th anniversary of that bloody act of savagery on the Achille Lauro; and I don’t suppose that the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, could have possibly picked more egregious timing for this performance.  1985 just wasn’t long enough ago.  Human beings who were personally scarred by that murder are still living every day with the memories and loss. Moreover, perhaps the last thing that people who consider themselves civilized or possessing at least a modicum of cultural sensitivity really want to attend right now is a an artistic rendering of terrorist slaughter given current events. The hate-fueled killing of Klinghoffer can quite arguably be said to have fertilized the philosophical and political roots of a tree that bears very strange fruit indeed, such as the horrendous 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks and the sickening videotaped slayings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff Z”L, and David Haines by minions of the Islamic State.

Then again, perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps people who consider themselves cultured would argue that creative expression trumps all. The fact that Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, declared the opera featuring their murdered father’s name anti-Semitic when they saw it earlier certainly didn’t seem to trouble Mr. Gelb too much when he selected it for the Met’s program. (By the way, with all respect, I don’t favor that term, anti-Semitic – it confuses things – maybe we should just call a spade a spade and use anti-Jewish instead.)  On the other hand, Mr. Gelb is paid some $1.8 million a year, and the concerns of folk such as the Klinghoffer sisters are, perhaps, quite dwarfed in comparison with the freedom that this generous compensation affords for the lofty intellectual pursuit of art.  Or some such.

Personally, I found the whole idea of the Met providing a stage for this bit of political theatre truly offensive.  So I wrote to Peter Gelb and said so.  Among other things, I asked if perhaps for its next act the Met would like to feature a performance of “A Night on Sinjar Mountain” (at the time, the Islamic State had several thousand Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains and were busy picking them off, dragging their daughters away to be sold and raped, and starving them to death).  Well I got, as they say, a nice letter back.  Among other things, the Executive Office of the Met wrote, “…In deference to the daughters of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, the Met has agreed to include a message from both in the Met’s Playbill and on its website….Please know that after an outpouring of concern that its plans to transmit John Adams’s opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ might be used to fan global anti-Semitism, the Metropolitan Opera announced the decision to cancel its Live in HD transmission, scheduled for November 15, 2014.”  Hmmm … what am I missing here?  It is quite clear from its response that the Met understands this work is anti-Jewish and/or can help fuel the drooling anti-Jewish hatred that has reared its ugly head in public of late not only in the jihadist camp, but on the extreme left and right, in such oh-so-civilized places as Paris and Berlin. So the Met has cancelled the live HD broadcast of the show, but insists on going ahead and presenting it on (of all places) the New York stage.

New York Times write-up of the Met’s decision to cancel the HD simulcast was characterized as “a dismaying artistic cave-in.”  I am sure that was very distressful for Mr. Gelb to have to read, particularly as he is the son of Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of The Times.  I do, however, beg to disagree.  I think that the issue here trumps “dismaying artistic cave-ins”. I think that featuring the “Death of Klinghoffer” crosses the line and is the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.  I also think that the fact that the Met, in stonewalling and insisting on continuing forward, is banking on and exploiting the decency, civility and, yes, the regard for the arts of American Jews and of Americans in general.  All of this leaves me feeling more than a little bit nauseated.  If it does you as well, I do suggest you drop Mr. Gelb and colleagues a line at:  ExecutiveOffice@metopera.org. And now I will close by letting Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer have the last word:

When we first heard that Adams was composing an opera about the hijacking, we were wary, but tried to be open-minded. We attended the 1991 premiere and were sickened. Imagine our horror as we watched the “Leon Klinghoffer” character being shot and thrown overboard in slow motion, as the baritone portraying our father sings the “Aria of the Falling Body.”

 This is a terrible perversion of our father’s murder.

Our father’s death was stark and brutal. His murderers were not soulful, thoughtfully conflicted characters, as in the opera’s production. They were hard-core terrorists, who used violence and hatred for base political motives. Those are the real facts behind the death of Leon Klinghoffer.

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About the Author
Rena Cohen is an Israeli American. An entreprenuerial generalist with a background in communications and biotech, she is also a writer and community organizer, and was awarded the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath in 2004 with her sister, Jade Bar-Shalom, Z'L, for founding the Books for Israel Project.