The Death of Klinghoffer offers a pro-Palestinian bias
by Emily Belz
NEW YORK—On the opening night of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, New York City police massed outside the Metropolitan Opera House as hundreds of protesters on the streets chanted. The opera, with some historical departures, tells the true story of Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists hijacking a Mediterranean cruise ship and murdering the elderly, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew vacationing with his wife. The opera’s many critics, including Klinghoffer’s two surviving daughters, say it romanticizes the terrorists and creates a moral equivalence between Palestinian suffering and Klinghoffer’s murder.
On opening night, ticket holders passed through NYPD checkpoints while protesters in wheelchairs shouted at them, “Find your conscience!” Many operagoers wore yarmulkes, some women wore headscarves, and one man wore the emerald green of the Palestinians. Inside, security guards searched bags, and police stationed themselves in the hall. As the conductor took his place, the audience met him with a chorus of boos and applause.
The libretto (the opera’s text) is morally and poetically incoherent, but the pro-Palestinian bias is clear. Each side does have an opportunity to bring out its grievances. The opera opens with a “chorus of exiled Palestinians,” then a “chorus of exiled Jews,” both singing about their suffering and wandering. The Palestinian exiles talk about Israelis razing their homes, and the Jewish exiles open suitcases and pull out trees, which they plant in the ground as they sing. The hijackers recount family members dying in Israeli raids, while Klinghoffer himself recounts Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli citizens.
In the opera as written, Klinghoffer’s murder occurs offstage. The Met made the right decision to show the terrorist shooting a weak old man in a wheelchair at point-blank range, making the audience jump as the gun rang out and blood spurted from Klinghoffer’s chest. That is a moment of moral clarity— the hijackers are the bad guys despite their backstory.
The opera closes with a beautiful, grief-filled aria from Klinghoffer’s wife Marilyn. In it, she lashes out at the terrorists and an apathetic world. The intimacy of the family’s story here makes it all the more jarring that Adams never received consent from the Klinghoffers to create this opera.
Kamel Boutros, a Christian, grew up in Egypt and was an opera singer with the Met for about five seasons—the first Arab to perform in a Met opera. He sang the part of Mahmoud—one of the terrorists—in several European productions of Klinghoffer and performed the part in the 2003 film.
He said watching from backstage the choruses of exiled Jews and exiled Palestinians always made him weep: “At the end of the day, it’s incredibly beautiful music but it doesn’t resolve anything.” He questions the libretto’s attempts to equalize all sides, when they aren’t equal. “I don’t agree with terrorism no matter what the story is. … But I understand anger on all sides. That’s why there will never be peace. This blood is more worthy than that blood is. There’s no one side saying, ‘Forgive me.’ It’s a nonstop cycle.”
Boutros spoke better than he knew. On opening night police arrested one man who shouted over and over in the middle of the performance, “The murderer of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.” A woman yelled back, as if in consolation, “No one here is trying to forgive him.” Security removed another woman who yelled a vulgarity at one of the terrorist characters when he first appeared on stage.
Boutros said if all the work does is stir “more and more of my hatred, then it doesn’t serve. … We haven’t learned that forgiveness is the victory. I don’t know how forgiveness can look in the Middle East.”