In 1985, members of the Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked an Italian cruise ship and killed one of the passengers, a Jewish-American man from New York City named Leon Klinghoffer. A few years later, the acclaimed composer John Adams was commissioned to write an opera based on the incident. The opera premiered in Brussels in 1991, but several other planned productions were canceled.
Among the cancellations was a planned production by the L.A. Opera — one of the companies that commissioned the work. At the time, the local company said the cancellation was for financial reasons. L.A. Opera has never produced the work and a company spokesman said Monday there are no plans to mount the production. (Long Beach Opera produced the work earlier this year.)
Monday night, however, “The Death of Klinghoffer” had its Metropolitan Opera premiere, despite protests from some Jewish groups that the work glamorizes terrorism. To accommodate some of those critics, the Met canceled a planned theatrical simulcast of the show to theaters around the world. But the show itself did go on.
The Frame spoke with Naomi Lewin, an afternoon host at WQXR, the classical station in New York City. She attended Monday night’s performance.
On the scene outside Lincoln Center:
When you come up out of the subway, usually you can go straight underground to Lincoln Center, but they had that gated off so everyone was forced to go upstairs to the outside [entrance]. There were bunches of policemen and barricades and people shouting. In Dante Park, which is the triangle directly across Columbus Avenue, is where all the major protesters had been positioned. There were hundreds of them. And then there were maybe half a dozen protesters protesting the protest. There was a lot of shouting of "Shame, shame, shame!" and a lot of heckling of people who were going in to the opera.
On security inside the hall:
This is the first time I've ever seen police inside the Metropolitan Opera. The show started 15 minutes late because there was so much trouble getting everyone in. And then when the conductor, David Robertson, came out, there was wild applause for him, plus a few boos. After the very first chorus, which is "The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians," there was a smattering of boos. And then after the scene when the hijackers actually appear and take over the ship, a man in the audience started shouting, "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!" And he shouted that [repeatedly] until he was removed from the audience. I asked the cops at intermission and they said he had been given a summons for disorderly conduct.
On whether the performance was disrupted:
It was clear that [opera officials] were expecting to have to deal with something. [The performers] just held in place and the conductor held, waiting for it and the audience just sat there. It was all very calm. Once the man was taken away, [the performance] just started up again. There were various other points at which something happened. Apparently right before intermission, somebody called for people to say Kaddish — the Jewish prayer for the dead — for Leon Klinghoffer. And there was another point during the second act when a woman shouted, "This is a piece of [excrement]."
On whether the performance changed any minds about the legitimacy of the opera:
I was sitting next to a woman who was reviewing it for an Israeli journal. Her problem with the opera is that it dealt with politics, because she didn't know if art and politics were a good mixture. But afterwards, she said, "Everybody should see this." And I kind of felt the same way. I thought it was a gorgeous production. Everyone should see it and then make up their mind about the mixture of art and politics.