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Twenty Years Later, 'Klinghoffer' Still Draws Protests

Several hundred protesters picket the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera season at Lincoln Center, Sept. 22, 2014. "You will be made to destroy that set," Jeffrey Wiesenfeld said. (Getty Images)

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is bracing for one of the more controversial productions in its history. Since its first performance more than 20 years ago, some critics have charged that composer John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer is anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. But the opera's supporters dispute that. They argue that Klinghoffer is a dramatic masterpiece that deserves to make its Met debut on Monday.

The title character is Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish man in a wheelchair who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists after they hijacked a cruise ship in 1985. The events on the ship form the basic narrative of the opera. But it also digresses into the historical roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — from the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, all the way back to the Old Testament. Klinghoffer's creators knew it was going to be controversial.

"We discussed it," librettist Alice Goodman says. "Not, 'Is this going to upset people?' But, 'Are we making the right presentation? Are we showing this in the most profound and truthful way?' "

Goodman also collaborated with Adams on the opera Nixon in China. But she did not expect the reaction that Klinghoffer provoked when it opened in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after its premiere in Brussels earlier that year.

"I realized at that point that my original youthful notion — 'Oh, this is a wonderful libretto, this is best thing I've done, everyone will recognize this and acclaim it' — was naive, to say the least," Goodman says.

Performances in other cities were canceled, and Goodman's career as a librettist ended abruptly. But the furor seemed to have died down in recent years. There were productions of Klinghoffer in St. Louis, Southern California and London, with hardly a protester in sight. Then came the current production at the Met, arguably the most important and visible opera house in the country.

Several hundred protesters, led by City University of New York trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, picketed outside Lincoln Center before the Met's opening night last month.

"You will be made to destroy that set," Wiesenfeld said at the protest. "We will demand it. It doesn't belong in this city. We are going to be back here — everyone here and many, many more — every night of the Klinghoffer opera until the set is burned to the ground."

Most of those protesters say they've never seen Klinghoffer, and don't want to. They argue the opera is anti-Semitic because it humanizes — and therefore glorifies — the terrorists. But the opera's defenders say that's a fundamental misreading of the work.

"The opera is not anti-Semitic," says Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. "It's not a glorification of terrorism. Any work of art that deals with conflict has to be authentic, has to explore both sides of the conflict. It explains the motives of the Palestinian terrorists, but that doesn't mean it supports them. "

Still, Gelb agreed to a compromise with the opera's detractors at the Anti-Defamation League. Performances of Klinghoffer in New York would go ahead. But the Met canceled the scheduled video simulcast of the opera to hundreds of theaters around the globe.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, says the compromise makes sense because of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. "When Peter [Gelb] and I spoke originally, I didn't have to persuade him very hard that maybe this is not the best time to raise the passions at theaters in Vienna and Amsterdam and Berlin," Foxman says. "We looked for a compromise."

But outside of the ADL, the compromise appears to satisfy no one — not the protesters in the street and not Goodman. Klinghoffer was the last opera she ever wrote. Today she is an Anglican priest near Cambridge, England. She insists she doesn't hate the protesters, even if they essentially ended her career as a librettist.

"The whole point of the opera is we are all related," Goodman says. "It has to do with the humanity even of the person you least wish to acknowledge the humanity of. It's so important. That people you most hate are human beings."

Goodman says the Met's new production of Klinghoffer, which also played in London, is the best yet, though she's disappointed that audiences around the world won't get to see it.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is bracing for a backlash as it prepares to stage "The Death Of Klinghoffer" by composer John Adams. The opera is based on the real-life hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Since its first performance more than 20 years ago, detractors have charged that the work is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. But for its supporters, "Klinghoffer" is a dramatic masterpiece that deserves to make its Met debut on Monday. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The title character is Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish man in a wheelchair who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists after they hijacked the Achille Lauro in 1985.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Klinghoffer) (Singing) I've never been a violent man. Ask anyone.

ROSE: The events on the ship form the basic narrative of the opera. But it also digresses into the historical roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 all the way back to the Old Testament. "Klinghoffer's" creators knew it was going to be controversial, and they discussed it as they were working.

ALICE GOODMAN: Not so much a question of is this going to upset people but are we making the right presentation? Are we showing this in the most profound and truthful way?

ROSE: Alice Goodman wrote the libretto. She also collaborated with composer John Adams on "Nixon In China" which is also based on historical events. But that did not prepare her for the reaction that "Klinghoffer" provoked when it first opened in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

GOODMAN: I realized at that point that my original, youthful notion - oh, this is a wonderful, wonderful libretto; this is the best thing I've done; everyone will recognize this and acclaim it - was naive to say the least.

ROSE: Performances in other cities were canceled, and Goodman's career as a librettist ended abruptly. But the furor seemed to be dying down in recent years. There were productions of "Klinghoffer" in St. Louis, Southern California and London with hardly a protester in sight. But the Met is arguably the most important and visible opera house in the country. And as it prepared to mount its first-ever production of the opera, the protests resumed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

JEFFREY WIESENFELD: You will be made to destroy that set. We will demand it.

ROSE: Several hundred protesters, led by City University of New York trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, picketed outside the Mets home at Lincoln Center last month.

WIESENFELD: We are going to be back here - everyone here and many, many more - every night of the "Klinghoffer" opera until the set is burned to the ground.

ROSE: Most of the protesters say they've never seen "Klinghoffer" and don't want to. They argue the opera is anti-Semitic because it humanizes and therefore glorifies the terrorists. And there are lines spoken by the Palestinians that taken out of context could support that argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Rambo) (Singing) You are always complaining of your suffering. But wherever poor men are gathered you can find Jews getting fat.

ROSE: But the opera's defenders say that's a fundamental misreading of the work.

PETER GELB: The opera is not anti-Semitic. It's not a glorification of terrorism.

ROSE: Peter Gelb is the Met's general manager.

GELB: Any work of art that deals with conflict has to explore both sides of the conflict. It explains the motives of the Palestinian terrorists, but that doesn't mean it supports them.

ROSE: Still, Gelb agreed to a compromise with the opera's detractors. Performances of "Klinghoffer" in New York would go ahead. But the Met canceled the scheduled video simulcast of the opera to hundreds of theaters around the globe.

Abraham Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He says the compromise makes sense because of the recent war in Gaza and rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: When Peter and I spoke originally, you know, I didn't have to persuade him very hard to say you know what? Maybe this is not the best time to raise the tension and the passion in theaters in Vienna and Amsterdam and Berlin.

ROSE: But besides the ADL, the Met's compromise appears to satisfy no one - not the protesters in the street and not librettist Alice Goodman. "The Death Of Klinghoffer" was the last opera she ever wrote. While she was working on it, she converted from Judaism to Christianity. She is now an Anglican priest near Cambridge, England. And at this point, Goodman says, she thinks of the protesters as her, quote, "crazy, angry relatives."

GOODMAN: The whole point of the opera is we are all related. It has to do with the humanity even of the person you least wish to acknowledge the humanity of.

ROSE: Alice Goodman says the Met's new production of "The Death Of Klinghoffer," which she saw in London, is the best yet, though she's disappointed that audiences around the world won't get to see it. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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