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The Death of Klinghoffer: “Art for Art’s Sake” or Anti-Semitism?

The Mark Chagall murals and crystal chandeliers hanging in the Metropolitan Opera were visible from the barricades on Columbus Avenue and 65th Street, where hundreds of protesters gathered yesterday to denounce the season premiere of John Adams’ controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The protest drew a varied crowd, ranging from young children accompanied by their families, to college students, to the elderly. Some had arrived as early as noon.

Signs that read “Cancel racist opera, insult to arts” and “Gelb, are you taking terror $$$” were held high during the demonstration. Long after the start of the premiere, cries of “shame, shame, shame”—often led by some of the guest speakers—boomed across Lincoln Center. Notable attendees included former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Congressman Peter King, who both addressed the crowd. “If you listen,” said Giuliani, “you will see that the emotional context of the opera truly romanticizes the terrorists.”

The Death of Klinghoffer, with music by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman, has incited fury since the Met decided added it to its performance schedule in February. The opera is based on the assassination of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew who was shot and thrown overboard an Italian cruise ship by PLF terrorists in 1985.

Reactions to the opera tend to fall into two opposing camps: those who defend free speech and ‘art for art’s sake,’ and those who claim that the libretto perpetuates anti-Semitism and glorifies terrorists. Most of the people interviewed had not seen the opera or read the entire libretto.

“It’s a chance for us to physically voice our opinions and show our unhappiness—and disappointment—with the Metropolitan opera,” said 19-year-old Rosie Lenoff, who studies psychology at Stern College. “They are saying it’s freedom of expression, freedom of speech, but if it [the opera] was about any other group of people, they wouldn’t be able to get away with it.”

Approximately thirty students aged 14-17 from Rambam Mesivta, located in Lawrence, N.Y., arrived at the rally on a private bus. Students from the school had attended the September 22nd rally as well. “The Met is putting on an opera that they call art, but it’s really glorifying terrorism,” said senior Gabe Motechin, who helped to organize the delegation.

“The problem is that in this historical event there was no conflict—it was a one-sided thing,” said 14-year-old Gidon Kaminer, a student the Heschel School in Manhattan, who was with a group that included his mother and a friend. “A man was shot in the head for no reason and pushed off a boat, so that wouldn’t make for a very interesting opera. In order to create this interesting opera, they have to draw a parallel—they have to create a conflict—they have to humanize them [the terrorists].”

Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, aided by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), requested that the opera not be simulcast or broadcast on the radio as was previously planned. In a statement which will be included in the Met’s playbills, they wrote: “It presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”

While Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has defended the inclusion of the opera in this year’s concert schedule, he yielded to the joint request of the Klinghoffer family and the ADL.

Hyman Silverglad, an attorney and resident of the Lower East Side, says he knew the Klinghoffers long before the controversy. He denounced the opera for “stimulating anti-Semitism throughout the world,” and took great offense at the argument that censorship is a violation of first amendment rights. He was pleased to see a young presence at the demonstration. He said “it was a sight for sore eyes to finally see young Jewish people taking part in these issues,” many of whom, have “turned off” Jewish affairs due to assimilation.

The Death of Klinghoffer premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991, only six years after the events that it depicts. Many, including former New York Governor George Pataki, have blasted the title alone, which critics say undermines and trivializes Klinghoffer’s brutal murder. O­peras give dramatic weight to both the protagonists and antagonists, a compositional technique employed by canonical composers like Mozart and Verdi, and The Death of Klinghoffer is no exception. Protesters say they are not enraged over the fact that the terrorists have arias, but rather that they sing lyrics many regard as anti-Semitic. (For example, “whenever poor men are gathered they can find Jews getting fat.”)

Siblings Sam and Shayna Schochet, aged 24 and 19 respectively, took issue with the how the opera frames the politics of Klinghoffer’s murder, arguing that it portrays the hijackers as “freedom fighters.”

“From my own estimation, I conclude that they are sympathizing with the Palestinian terrorists,” said Sam.

Shana added, “they’re humanizing the terrorist… At the end of the day, [Klinghoffer] was a helpless Jewish man who went on a cruise with his wife. He was killed. That’s not [the actions of] a freedom fighter; that’s a terrorist.”

(Image: A protester holds up a sign outside the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center on opening night of the opera, ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ on October 20. Credit: Bryan Thomas/Getty)

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