Entertainment & Arts

Klinghoffer opera 'must be performed', says Met

Protests outside the Met in September Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protests took place outside the Met last month at the opening night of its 2014/2015 season

The New York Metropolitan Opera is presenting controversial work The Death of Klinghoffer this week. Its general manager tells the BBC why he is determined to press ahead despite protests at its staging.

John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer relates the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish man killed by Palestinian gunmen on board a hijacked cruise ship in 1985.

It is a piece that has attracted controversy ever since it was first staged in 1991, with some accusing it of glorifying terrorism and being anti-Semitic.

The piece has also prompted sharp criticism from Mr Klinghoffer's family for the "exploitation" of his "cold-blooded murder".

The Met had originally planned to relay the revival - a co-production with the English National Opera (ENO) first seen in London in 2012 - live to cinemas around the world.

But after Jewish groups argued the screenings would stoke anti-Semitism outside the US, the relays were cancelled.

Now the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, is under pressure to cancel the stage presentation too. For now, though, he is holding firm.

'Brilliant work of art'

"There's no doubt for anyone who sees this opera that… it's not anti-Semitic," he tells the BBC News website. "It does not glorify terrorism in any way.

"It is a brilliant work of art that must be performed."

Gelb, who has been with the Met since 2006, acknowledges the strength of feeling surrounding the opera and says he has received death threats.

But, he continues, "in the end of the day, anyone with any sense of moral understanding knows this opera is about the murder of an innocent man."

In 1985, Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound retiree from New York, took a Mediterranean cruise on the Achille Lauro with his wife Marilyn.

On 7 October, four hijackers from the Palestine Liberation Front took control of the vessel. The following day, they shot Mr Klinghoffer dead and had his body thrown overboard.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Death of Klinghoffer is a co-production with English National Opera (ENO)

"Adams chose this very difficult subject," Gelb says, "and it's an opera that is very powerful and very moving."

It is a piece that "deals with the terrorists and with the victims," says the opera house chief, "but in ways that delve deeply into both sides."

The Klinghoffers' daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, issued a statement after seeing its first production.

In it they expressed their outrage "at the exploitation of our parents and the cold-blooded murder of our father as the centrepiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic".

It is an accusation that has dogged the opera ever since, and one that now engulfs the Met as it prepares to stage the work for the first time.

'Difficult position'

When the cinema relays of the production were announced in February, says Gelb, "nobody reacted at all."

Four months later, though, the Met's head says he became the subject of a "campaign… to cancel the transmission".

Donors to the Met, upon whom the New York opera house relies heavily for its funding, also came under pressure.

They "found themselves in a very difficult position," says Gelb, "because they wanted to support the Met but felt themselves being torn by pressure from the Jewish community".

Gelb decided it was in the Met's interests to cancel the cinema relay, "believing it would satisfy the donors and the opposition that I was facing".

But the protests continued, with "major protests" outside the Met, says Gelb. "One protester said he wasn't going to rest until the sets were burned to the ground."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Peter Gelb says it is important for "great art to be presented"

Gelb says he agreed to print a statement from Klinghoffer's daughters in the opera programme, in which they lay out their objections to the piece.

"It is an opera about the murder of their father," he acknowledges, "and I can certainly sympathise with their hating everything about it for that reason alone."

The protests look set to peak as the curtain goes up on Monday, with the New York Observer reporting that Rudy Giuliani, the city's former mayor, will lead the opening night demonstrations.

There will also be a heavy police presence, according to the New York Post.

Gelb, though, is adamant that the show will go on. "We will not bow to this pressure," he says. "We can't."

The protests, he believes, are "a kind of knee-jerk reaction… fuelled by the very, very difficult times in which we're living right now."

The world, he says, is "more polarised than ever before" with "horrible events taking place on a daily basis".

All the more reason, he insists, for "great art to be presented".

"Just because a piece of art deals with a thorny subject should not mean that it should be suppressed."

The Death of Klinghoffer is at the New York Metropolitan Opera from 20 October to 15 November.

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