The Death of Klinghoffer: Ready for Controversy

John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer performed by the English National Opera.(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera)
John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer performed by the English National Opera.(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera announced yesterday that it will cancel the planned HD-worldwide transmission of a new production of The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera by John Adams. Performances in New York, the first in several years, will go on as planned. So far.

Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old wheelchair bound retiree, went on a cruise with his wife Marilyn in 1985. They boarded the Italian liner Achille Lauro or a leisurely trip meant to distract Mrs. Klinghoffer from advancing cancer.

The ship was boarded by Palestinians and on October 8 1985. Leon Klinghoffer was thrown overboard in his wheelchair.  Six years later, composer John Adams,  librettist Alice Goodman and stage director Peter Sellars produced an opera called The Death of Klinghoffer.

I’m of the opinion that the Adams-Sellars team can be sneering while coming across as heartfelt and sincere. Sellars eschews any tampering with a score, but an opera’s setting and visual aspects are fair game. Adams-Goodman-Sellars had already produced a worldwide hit, Nixon in China, and a fine opera it  is. While Nixon is reviled by the Upper West Side lefty crowd, he was actually treated sympathetically in the opera. Nixon in China terrific music theater, at nobody’s expense.

It seemed cruel to produce The Death of Klinghoffer six years after the murder. Mrs. Klinghoffer had died, but her two daughters and their families woke up to news stories of an opera depicting their father’s grisly death. To them and to many, the murderers were treated sympathetically. The Death of Klinghoffer  is a  beautifully written work. It’s deeply moving-and treats the Palestinians sympathetically. An elderly Jew is horribly killed,  while his killers sing yearn for peace. Can you spell PR disaster?

The opera had several productions in the 1990s and several more were cancelled.

The choral sequences especially have ravishing music and the protagonists are drawn with care. The problem is the sympathy shown toward the Palestinian hijackers who drowned a helpless old Jewish man. The whole thing seems exploitative. The two Klinghoffer daughters were appalled and powerless to stop the production.  The opera did become a wonderful film, directed by Penny Woolcock.

Letters to the editor gathered steam and the Anti-Death of Klinghoffer posse went viral. Sympathetic Palestinians who hijack ships and murder and innocent invalid is a lot to take in, even for an opera. That The Death of Klinghoffer was produced so soon after the terrible events seems sinister to me. I know several people who were involved in the original production. Good, loving people. Some are Jewish, some not.  I thought it was too soon in 1991 to see this story on the opera stage. It’s still too soon in 2014.