You know an opera is controversial when the protesters outside start comparing the opera house to a Nazi death camp.
That at least was the sentiment expressed by hundreds of protesters gathered across the street from Lincoln Center Monday night to express the opposition to a performance of The Death of Klinghoffer by the Metropolitan Opera on Manhattan’s west side.
“This might not be Auschwitz. It is Lincoln Center,” said Ben Brafman, a high profile defense attorney, citing his grandparents who were murdered in the Holocaust.
The opera, by minimalist composer John Adams, depicts the hijacking of the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian militants in which Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair bound American Jew, was murdered and tossed overboard. From is premiere in 1991, the opera has been surrounded by controversy over concerns that it paints the hijackers, members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in a flattering light. In a preview piece over the weekend, an opera critic for The New York Times dismissed such concerns, saying that it is possible to view the work as sympathetic “toward the exiled Jews, whose post-Holocaust dispossession leads to serene, productive hope, while the exiled Palestinians can feel shrill, unanimous and useless in their rage.”
The protesters, however, were not convinced.
“We’re here tonight to mark one of the cultural low points in this city,” said former George W. Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey, who suggested that people attended the opera did so out of fear of being label close-minded or anti-art. The opera-goers, he added, cover up their anti-Semitism “with the perfume of the word ‘Art.’ And they think no one notices the stench.”
In a statement, the Met said that the protesters were misreading the work, and they would not bow to pressure.
“The fact that Klinghoffer grapples with the complexities of an unconscionable real-life act of violence does not mean it should not be performed,” read the statement. “The rumors and inaccuracies about the opera and its presentation at the Met are part of a campaign to have it suppressed. Klinghoffer is neither anti-Semitic nor does it glorify terrorism. The Met will not bow to this pressure.”
The protest failed to attract many of the current leading political figures in New York. Mayor Bill de Blasio did not attend, nor did any citywide or statewide elected official. Instead, the dais at the anti-Opera protest was filled with longtime Congressional representatives, including Republican Peter King of Long Island and Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Eliot Engel, and former elected officials who mostly shy away from municipal matters, like former Governor David Paterson and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani’s presence brought the famously opera loving pol back into the political fray for the moment, with the former mayor sparring with de Blasio in a series of dueling media appearances.
Citing Giuliani’s controversial efforts as mayor to shut down an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in the late 1990s, de Blasio told reporters earlier on Monday that, “The former mayor had a history of challenging cultural institutions when he disagreed with their content.”
“I don’t think that’s the American way,” he added. “I think the American way is to respect freedom of speech, simple as that.”
At the rally, the former mayor said that The Death of Klinghoffer “supports terrorism.” However, he also said he was a fan of the work’s music, and said that the Met had a First Amendment right to produce it.
But most of the several hundred protesters in attendance were in a far less conciliatory mood. Jeffrey Wisenfeld, who organized the rally, urged the Met to destroy the multi-million dollar sets and use them for tinder, and mocked Met director Peter Gelb for the police presence that was used to keep the protesters at bay.
“Peter Gelb is responsible for costing the mayor money that he could have used for pre-K program,” Wisenfeld said.
“Mr. Mayor, don’t tell us what is good for us,” he added. “This is not art. This is crap.”
Other protestors echoed Wisenfeld. “I am just so tired of the self-righteous smugness of Upper West Side elitists,” said Yona Rothwax, who had come from that neighborhood to protest what she saw as a threat to Judaism in her own backyard. She, like most everyone interviewed at the protest, had not seen the opera, but said that everything she had read about Adams the composer and librettist Alice Goodman convinced her that “they are monsters.”
“I hope anyone who supports this opera company reneges on that commitment, especially if they are Jews,” said Harvey Miller, who attended the protest with his wife. They had not seen the opera either, and said that while they supported the composers’ free speech rights, Adams should have performed the opera “for a private party instead.”