By Charles Gross
Here's an idea for an opera: How about the story of Ray Rice beating up his girlfriend but with a long sympathetic aria where Rice explains why he had to hit her. No good? How about an opera based on "Birth of A Nation," a classic film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan? Still off base? Okay, how about the story of 9/11 where we give the terrorists who flew the plane an equally empathic portrayal with the victims who died in the twin towers?
Poor taste? Inappropriate? Yes it is! Yet there are many who seem to have no problem in allowing "The Death of Klinghoffer," an opera that tries to justify terrorism or at least empathize with the terrorists, to be produced at the Metropolitan Opero. I have been a drama critic for over 30 years and while I have often questioned why a show was produced, I have never stated that a show should not be produced? until I viewed a filmed version of "Klinghoffer."
"The Death of Klinghoffer" is the story of Palestinian terrorists who shot Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, crippled, Jewish American. Klinghoffer and his wife were taking a pleasure cruise on a ship called the Achille Lauro. The boat was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and Klinghoffer was murdered by them.
Klinghoffer's murder and the cruelty of the terrorists are portrayed in the opera, but there are also scenes that try and draw sympathy to the them. In one scene, a terrorist sings gently about birds and seeing the dawn as his comrades fervently pray. In other scenes they sing lines such as "But wherever poor men are gathered they can find Jews getting fat."
Now, you would expect Palestinian terrorists to be anti-Semitic, but compile their numerous speeches with the sympathetic songs about birds and dawn and with other scenes of their squalor life and you have the real possibility of an empathetic audience who just might think there is some truth into lines such as "The Jews know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin."
The opera's authors seem to have little interest in their title character. We see him on screen several times but we know nothing about him. Unlike his murderers, we are shown nothing of his background. He has only one short (although admittedly potent) aria, a retort to his murderers just before he is shot. The authors cannot even bring themselves to call Klinghoffer's death a murder in the opera's title.
There is no question that the Met has the right to present this opera, but think about it. Would they present an opera sympathetic to gay bashers? Would they show one that presents the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis in a sympathetic light? Would they even consider a piece that uses the N word? Somehow I doubt it.
Of course, the opera's creative team and their supporters are screaming artistic freedom, but such freedom must also come with responsibility and judgment. I would hope that the Met would have the good judgment not to produce an opera based on "Birth of a Nation." I further hope that they will ultimately use the same judgment and not produce "The Death of Klinghoffer."
Charles Gross is the host of "Two On The Aisle," a television program covering the New York theater. His reviews and articles have appeared in Am New York, The West Side Spirit, The Press Journal and Playbill on Line.