The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Should a Controversial Opera Be Seen?

On Monday night, hundreds of people protested outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera that the presentation of “The Death of Klinghoffer” is anti-Semitic, and should not have been offered by the Met.

A summary: In 1985, Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jewish-American disabled man, and his wife, Marilyn, were passengers on an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. The ship was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists, who shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him overboard in his wheelchair.

First produced in 1991, “Klinghoffer” contains a running debate between the killers—who voice a number of anti-Semitic slurs in the course of justifying their conduct—and Klinghoffer as their victim.

John Adams also wrote “Nixon in China”, another “docu-opera. With “Klinghoffer”, he has a much more provocative topic and aims to show both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was among the protestors, wrote a not completely unreasonable op-ed in his opposition to the Met’s staging of the John Adams opera. He says while the Met had a First Amendment right to present the opera:

Equally, all of us have as strong a First Amendment right to…warn people that this work is both a distortion of history and helped, in some ways, to foster a three decade long feckless policy of creating a moral equivalency between the Palestinian Authority and the state of Israel…this opera didn’t create but certainly contributed to a romanticized version of the Palestinian cause which led to the American administration giving them hundreds of millions of dollars meant for the Palestinian people but mostly taken by Arafat and his band of terrorist crooks.

So, Giuliani complains that Adams’s 23-year-old opera has contributed directly to the collapse of the Middle East peace process and to hundreds of millions of dollars being funneled to terrorists. What’s in that NYC water?

What has happened is that the protestors have brought the Israeli/Palestinian differences to New York. They are busy recapitulating the division, spin, shouting and reiteration of the talking points of both sides, this time through the medium of the Metropolitan Opera. Protesters are demanding that the opera be canceled; defenders of the opera couch their position in terms of artistic freedom or, as a two-sides presentation, giving a voice to the grievances of the Palestinians.

Some people say works like “Klinghoffer” encourage people to emulate the bad behaviors they see on stage. It is doubtful that anyone has engaged in sibling incest after watching “Die Walküre”. Let’s remember that “The Marriage of Figaro” is about a libidinous noble’s invocation of the historical “droit de seigneur.” That “Macbeth” is about regicide. That Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd” about a maniacal serial killer. That the opera “The Rake’s Progress” about someone selling his soul to the devil.

Let’s also remember Mr. Giuliani in 1999, as Mayor of all the people of New York, tried to shut down the Brooklyn Museum because he viewed an exhibition as “sick,” “disgusting” and sacrilegious. At the time, Giuliani argued that the Brooklyn Museum had no First Amendment right to show a British exhibition that featured a portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung. He then threatened to terminate the Museum’s lease with the city and possibly even seize control of the Museum. The exhibit went forward.

The issue is what to do about provocative art that offends the sensibilities of some fraction of the population. The opera and the protests taken together, confront us with something we see all too often: Conflicts between, and often within populations, who have been traumatized by history.

You cannot reason with people when hyper-vigilance and condemnation are what drives any discussion with them.

Let the protestors protest. Let the show go on. Let the debate about the opera go forward. One can argue passionately about the Middle East, Israel or Palestinians. None of that makes the Klinghoffer murder morally acceptable. Or “Klinghoffer” great art.

If we want to bridge our differences, we have to start small, take a few risks, confess some offenses, forgive them and move to reconciliation. Then build on that.

It is the only solution. It does not begin in crowds.


  • Terry McKenna says:

    I remember the actual event, and remember jokes that said more or less, PLO stands for Push Leon Overboard. The opera is far more serious, and the outrage is manufactured, which is to say that those who are outraged are outraged that the political view of Palestinians are voiced.

    So agree, protest is fine, but let’s not kid ourselves about almost any of what passes for outrage.

    October 23, 2014 at 9:49 am

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