Trouble inside and out of the Met as controversial John Adams opera reaches opening night.
John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer has opened with a standing ovation inside the Metropolitan Opera House despite angry protests from several hundred outside. The opera, which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the cruise-ship Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jewish passenger by Palestinian terrorists, also received a small volley of vocal onslaughts from some in the audience.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s conductor David Robertson received loud cheers as he arrived in the pit, although there was a smattering of booing after the opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. Matters proceeded smoothly until just before the interval when a man shouted “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven” several times before he was escorted out by Met security staff. Otherwise, a woman shouted an obscenity at the moment that the singer playing Leon Klinghoffer was shot. Ushers also removed her from the auditorium. By the time the composer took his curtain call an enthusiastic audience gave him a rousing welcome.
During the day, a raft of speakers including former New York City Mayor and now prospective Republican Presidential candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, had addressed the growing band of anti-Klinghoffer demonstrators. A large number of protestors took to the pavements in wheelchairs wearing signs around their necks declaring “I am Leon Klinghoffer”.
The Met were standing firm, however. Their promotional materials were headed with the slogan: “See it. Then decide.” – a recognition that many of their critics admit to never having read or listened to the work. “The fact that Klinghoffer grapples with the complexities of an unconscionable real-life act of violence does not mean it should not be performed,” said a spokesman on Monday. “The rumours and inaccuracies about the opera and its presentation at the Met are part of a campaign to have it suppressed. Klinghoffer is neither anti-Semitic nor does it glorify terrorism. The Met will not bow to this pressure.” They did agree meanwhile to run a message from Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters in the program criticising the work and claiming that “it rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
Speakers at the rally were headed by Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld who defended the anger of the crowd saying that “you can’t be responsible when the Metropolitan Opera advocates terrorism and incites violence – you can’t know what will happen – and anything that happens, that has besmirched this Metropolitan Opera, and besmirched Lincoln Center, is to be laid at the foot of Peter Gelb.”
Giuliani on the other hand called for a peaceful demonstration. He also admitted to having a copy of the opera and to have read the libretto. Despite that he maintained that the work distorts the historical picture. “The Met, and those who decide to go see this production, have every right to do so, and it would be hypocritical and anti-American for us to interfere with that and to stop that,” he said. “But we also have a right, just as strong and just as compelling, to point out the historical inaccuracy and the historical damage this contributed to.”
Earlier in the day, current NYC Mayor and leading Democrat Bill de Blasio defended the Met’s right to perform Klinghoffer. He accused Giuliani, who tried to stop the Brooklyn Academy receiving funding in 1999 after it mounted an exhibition which he found offensive, of having “a history of challenging cultural institutions” when he disagreed with their content. “I don’t think that’s the American way,” De Blasio told reporters. “I think the American way is to respect freedom of speech. Simple as that.”
The work has had a series of high profile defenders as well. Artistic Director of the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, said in an interview “it is not only permissible for the Met to do this piece, it’s required for the Met to do the piece. It is a powerful and important opera.”