NEW YORK – Lincoln Center in New York City is not a place over which police helicopters usually hover, or where NYPD barricades line the streets and officers restrict entry to the normally wide-open plaza in front of the Metropolitan Opera. But on Monday evening, police stood watch over a massive anti-Met protest led by the New York Jewish community against the long-awaited and long-dissented opening of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer.
The opera is based on the events of the real-life 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, who subsequently shot and killed wheelchair- bound American Jew Leon Klinghoffer and threw his body overboard. In this spirit, about 100 protesters sat apart from the main group, in wheelchairs, in front of the main opera house – all wearing signs that read “I am Leon Klinghoffer,” and yellow stars with the words “Never again.”
Estimates on the number of protesters who gathered at Lincoln Square reached as high as 3,000, with many protesters holding signs asking Met Opera general manager Peter Gelb if he was taking terrorist money. Calls to fire Gelb could be heard, as could denunciations of the opera as anti-Semitic, and chants of “Shame! Shame!” Rally speakers asserted that The Death of Klinghoffer was not art, “it’s crap!” and there were calls of “Where’s our mayor?” – a reference to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to denounce the opera, and former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s silence on the issue.
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was the headline speaker of the rally, said this opera had helped to create a decades-long struggle.
“Every person here has just as strong a First Amendment right to protest,” said Giuliani, invoking the freedom-ofspeech argument that many of the opera’s defenders had used during the controversy.
“This work is a distortion of history, and helped to foster...
a moral equivalency between the Palestinian Authority, a corrupt terrorist organization, and the state of Israel, a democracy ruled by law.”
Giuliani said he’d been an opera fan for 57 years and been to the Met “probably 100 times,” and was deeply familiar with both the music and libretto of this opera.
“As a story attempting to [recount] an appalling terrorist murder of a man who was killed because he was Jewish, it’s a factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging piece,” Giuliani said. “This opera contributed to a romanticized version of the Palestinian cause and a romanticized version of terrorism.”
However, he acknowledged how difficult it was to run such a complex and large organization, saying, “I appreciate that Peter Gelb canceled the television and radio broadcast of this opera. That was a hard decision and a more courageous one than you think.”
Giuliani also said he “appreciated the revisions that had been made to the opera,” which put a little more responsibility on the terrorists. But these changes don’t do anything “to ameliorate the impression that there was sympathetic justification for the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, and that’s a sin,” he said.
“The Met and those who decide to go see this production have every right to do so. It would be hypocritical and anti-American for us to interfere with that,” he concluded. “But we also have a right, just as strong, and just as compelling, to point out the historical inaccuracy and historical damages that this contributed to.”
In a statement from the Anti-Defamation League – which was also a target of the protesters’ scorn for what many saw as supporting the opera’s staging – Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of the deceased, said they were “strong supporters of the arts,” and that while the arts could help to examine and better understand significant world events, this opera “does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight” into the real-life event.
Prior to the press conference and rally, many major Jewish groups in New York put out statements in support of the protesters, including American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, who was traveling and could not attend in person, and US Congressman Jerry Nadler.
Nadler told The Jerusalem Post that “I abhor government overreach into artistic matters and have steadfastly opposed censorship throughout my career. However, if you want my personal opinion, I believe, having read the libretto, that the Klinghoffer opera has anti-Semitic overtones and is offensive.”
He added that “of course, the Metropolitan Opera has the First Amendment right to make any decisions it wants, including the right to put on shows that are deeply offensive.
Equally, I certainly also support the First Amendment right of private citizens wishing to protest such decisions.”
Other speakers, each equally passionate about the issue, expressed sentiments similar to Nadler’s, among them opera singer Janet Davis, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, US Congressman Eliot Engel and World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder.
For patrons entering the Met before the opera began, the consensus seemed to be to keep an open mind.
“I want to reserve judgment until I see it,” said Marissa, a young patron who did want to give her last name, citing an incident in which a colleague had lost out on a $25,000 contract by speaking out publicly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The protests, she said, were “bigger than I expected. Honestly, it made me want to come and see it more. We’re Jewish, and these are Jews who are protesting, so I wanted to see for myself with no expectations and a completely open mind.”
Marissa also noted that she thought a lot of the complaints about the opera – for instance, the number of arias the Palestinians had versus the number the Jews had – were “nitpicky.”
Aaron Mack Schloff, a former theater critic for the New York Jewish Week and now a playwright in Brooklyn, said, “If it puts butts in the seats, I think [the protests] should happen every night!” But he quickly revised his evaluation.
“I just read the libretto on the subway on the way up here, and the protests made me eager to see for myself. I think every person should see it for themselves.”
Cecile, a visitor from France who also didn’t give her surname, said she hadn’t heard about the controversy until after she’d bought her tickets.
“I don’t understand why there’s all this trouble,” she said. “I suppose I wanted to see the purpose [for the protests].”
The opera began at 7:30 p.m., and at 10:45 p.m. patrons began to straggle out of the theater past a much-reduced police force, fewer barricades, and a few very determined protesters.
Some verbal confrontations took place in front of the police, but no arrests occurred. A few patrons found themselves discussing whether those Jews who went to see it were “self-hating Jews,” and whether or not the Klinghoffers were portrayed as the heroes and the Palestinians as thugs.
Overall, opinions varied widely as to whether or not the work was anti-Semitic, or even a worthwhile, entertaining opera – despite the reported thunderous ovation at the end for composer Adams.
One couple leaving the opera told reporters they thought the opera was just bad. “Oh, it was boring,” one of them said. “It’s a bad opera. The dialogue was awful.”
In fact, they added, they thought the opera was anti-Palestinian, not anti-Semitic.
The Palestinians, they said, “are shown as being criminals.”
Other theater-goers reiterated that they didn’t like it as a work of art, but that they thought it was, in fact, anti-Semitic.
Still others, such as mother and son Iris and Neil, thought that the audience had been anti-Semitic, but the show hadn’t. Iris and Neil and their companion Andrew Albstein – all New Yorkers wearing yellow “Never again” stars – were part of a contingent of “concerned opera goers” who had bought up a block of 50 tickets to the opera, and then told reporters that several ushers had tried to stop them from entering, claiming the tickets were reprints.
“We came with my mother, who was in a wheelchair,” Iris said, “and she had to leave. I didn’t want to put her through that.”
“The people were worse than the opera” in terms of anti-Semitism, Iris added.
All the patrons reported incidents of booing during the curtain call – including Albstein, who said he had been one of the ones booing – and a moment when a man in a balcony had stood up and begun shouting, “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.” That man was reportedly thrown out.
Jane and Roger Adelman, Manhattanites who ran in to buy tickets close to when the opera began, said that when the shouting started, the whole opera had stopped for about 30 seconds.
Some people also got up and left at various points.
Jane Adelman said she didn’t care for the opera as a work of art, and she definitely thought it was anti-Semitic.
“There’s a point at the end where the Palestinians are leaving the ship,” she said. “And they turn around, and the Palestinians and the people on the cruise in their cruise outfits wave to each other! The opera didn’t portray the Palestinians as the disgusting, bad people that they are.”
One man who liked the opera, Michael Green – a New Yorker who described himself as a “sometime opera-goer” – said there had been cops walking up and down the aisles during the breaks. Green added that he didn’t think the opera was particularly biased. “It does show the Palestinian grievances,” he said. “But at one point, one of the Palestinians goes on an anti-Semitic tirade in response to one of Klinghoffer’s arias, and it really showed [that character] in a bad light. The thoughts he sang about were recognizable as being stereotypical thoughts about Jews and money and greed. That was the character talking, not the opera, you know what I mean?”