If the latest controversy in the world of opera is your thing, you're likely familiar with the heat building around John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer," a 1991 opera about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian militants, and the subsequent killing of disabled American Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. For the uninitiated, Klinghoffer was reportedly shot in the head by militants, and his wheelchair thrown overboard, in a particularly horrific murder scene.
"Klinghoffer" is slated to open October 20 at the Met Opera, and is expected to be met with great opposition. Protests broke out earlier this year, during the September opening of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Those in opposition of the upcoming "Klinghoffer" performance yielded signs reading "The Met Opera glorifies terrorism," "Propaganda masquerading as art," and "Don't give hate a voice."
"It's more than insensitive, it's immoral," Scarsdale-based protestor Carole Daman told the Associated Press.
In June of this year, Met Director Peter Gelb Gelb made a decision to cancel plans for a live transmission of the opera in movie theaters. Although Gelb himself expressed his belief that the show was not anti-Semitic, he professed it "would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe." This act of censorship was nearly as controversial as the opera itself.
Now Gelb has responded to the still ongoing uproar surrounding the show with a brief essay describing, from his perspective, the importance of "Klinghoffer" and the greater implications of the debate surrounding it. The same show that's garnered so much ire from viewers just may be what brings opera back into relevance.
Read Gelb's thoughts, sent to The Huffington Post, below:
When I became the 16th general manager in the storied history of the Met, it was not with the intention of deliberately courting controversy. Although I was determined to shake out some of the cobwebs of grand opera, my intentions have always been to do so with new and genuine artistic and public initiatives that would reconnect the Met to the larger cultural conversation. Certainly, putting a greater emphasis on commissioning new work and featuring the presentation of recent masterpieces has been part of my overall artistic mission from the very beginning. But I was taken by surprise by the sudden and virulent reaction in some quarters over our presentation of John Adams’s "The Death of Klinghoffer", which premieres on Monday, October 20th.
"The Death of Klinghoffer" is arguably the greatest operatic writing from America’s leading composer of contemporary opera. Like other operas of Adams, it deals with contemporary history, in this case the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murder of an innocent Jew by Palestinian terrorists. Although it has been accused of being anti-Semitic and a glorification of terrorism (it’s neither), I believe the libretto is guiltless in its attempt to understand the motives of the criminals who perpetrated the Klinghoffer crime.
When I was a child attending Sunday school, I remember being taught by a wise rabbi that we shouldn’t go to bed at night without having learned at least one new thing during the day. I was brought up to be intellectually curious about the world around me and to try to understand the reasons behind human conflict. I was taught that knowledge was the key to understanding.
It would seem that most of those violently objecting to our presentation of Klinghoffer have no interest in knowing what the opera is really about. Without having read the complete libretto or ever having seen the opera, they nonetheless are quick to condemn it. For them, giving any voice to terrorism is a sin in itself.
In any case, whether you’re a fan of Klinghoffer or in a state of Klinghoffer denial, the run of performances will end in November. Opera lovers will then be free to ponder the consequences of operas with a longer historical view, from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, banned by Stalin when it was new but now considered a modern masterpiece by all, to Verdi’s towering Don Carlo, which various religious groups attempted to stop when it was presented by the Met in the 1950s.
Controversial or not, at least grand opera is back in the cultural conversation.
What do you think of Gelb's conclusion? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.