Arts and Culture | Religion & Jewish Life

‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ fails to live up to the controversy

Protesters demonstrating against "The Death of Klinghoffer" outside the Metropolitan Opera House in New York city, Oct. 20, 2014. (Raffi Wineburg)
Protesters demonstrating against “The Death of Klinghoffer” outside the Metropolitan Opera House in New York city, Oct. 20, 2014. (Raffi Wineburg)

NEW YORK (JTA) — “See it. You Decide,” the Metropolitan Opera of New York exhorts in a promotional push capitalizing on the controversy over its new production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

Well, I saw it.

And I’m not sure which was more of a letdown, the hubbub over the show or the show itself.

Let’s start with the critics and protesters, since they are responsible ultimately for turning the show into the most buzzed about cultural happening in New York (at least since the close of the Jeff Koons retrospective on Sunday at the Whitney Museum).

By the time I settled into my seat on Monday night — after months of cries of “anti-Semitism” and “glorification/humanization of terrorists” filling my email box — I was expecting Shylock meets “Natural Born Killers.”

Not even close. Whatever the original intentions of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman when they created the opera about 25 years ago, the latest production casts the killers as not particularly likable, violent thugs and puts Leon Klinghoffer at the moral center. So much so that the show’s effort to provide a measure of absolution for the terrorists near the end comes off as contrived and heavy handed, and is immediately trumped by the final monologue from Klinghoffer’s wife, Marilyn.

Back in June, the Anti-Defamation League, with the support of Klinghoffer’s daughters, convinced the Met to drop its planned simulcast of the show on the grounds that it might feed anti-Jewish violence in other parts of the globe. But after actually seeing the production, this seems wrong-headed: Compared to the anti-Semitic fare widely available on the Internet and Arabic television, this show could pass as an anti-terrorism public service announcement.

None of this is to discount the objections of Klinghoffer’s daughters to the use of their father’s cold-blooded murder as a dramatic or political device. Or the concerns that ADL officials and other people of good will have over anything that might fuel anti-Semitic violence at a time when Jewish communities around the world are increasingly forced to look over their collective shoulder.

It’s just that in the end, this production’s moral equivalence of Palestinian and Jewish suffering does not translate into sympathy for or understanding of the killers. Yes, the show’s title is offensive and morally obtuse (it was a murder, after all), but this production does not sugarcoat what happened on the deck of the Achille Lauro in 1985.
In fact, it doesn’t do much of anything — at least on the political level. (I’ll leave the musical criticism to people who actually frequent the opera.)

Maybe when “The Death of Klinghoffer” first hit the stage in 1991, it put forth some uncomfortable, rarely heard perspectives about root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in 2014, as an act of political subversion, the opera feels dated.

These days, New Yorkers can walk just a few blocks from where the opera is being staged to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, where they can probably catch an Israeli-made film taking a much deeper look and asking much harder questions about Palestinian suffering and the impact of Israel’s policies in the territories. Even some mainstream Israeli politicians have more challenging things to say than this show does about the conflict and a possible resolution.

Forget “Merchant of Venice.” This show and the controversy surrounding it are much ado about nothing.