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Death of Klinghoffer debrief: What went down at the Metropolitan Opera opening

By David Cote

Last night at the Metropolitan Opera I saw masses of aggrieved people shrieking in unison against crimes perpetrated on their people. I heard voices choked with righteous indignation, distortedly pitched through bullhorns, haranguing others on the far side of a barricade guarded by men with guns who were there to contain the surging crowd. I felt, even from a distance, the seething animus of one group that felt humiliated by another and demanded justice.

I wish I were only talking about the beautiful and terrifying “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” that begins John Adams’s 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which had its Metropolitan Opera premiere last night. But this strange music, in all its atonal, repetitive, ostinato-heavy frenzy, was happening on the median that faces Lincoln Center’s plaza. As most everyone knows, the big-budget, highly visible Met engagement has drawn passionate protests and demands that the Met withdraw what is perceived to be an anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist opera that justifies the murder of Leon Klinghoffer in 1985. I never saw Klinghoffer live before, only clips of the 2003 TV movie version and the score on CD. But after seeing this grave, complex and often brilliant meditation on justice, death and the utter indifference of nature, I can firmly say: It’s a work of art. It happens to be about an event whose issues are still explosive and making headlines. But it condones the murder of Jewish people (or Israelis) as much as Macbeth condones regicide. As for the insipid charge that Klinghoffer may convince thugs to commit terrorist acts in order to have operas written about them, let me assure you: The only thing it will inspire is more operas. And that’s a good thing.

Here’s how the night went. I entered the north side of the plaza about 6:10, with the sun starting to set. Since the police had contained protesters and gave the Lincoln Center campus a wide berth, I didn’t have to walk a gantlet of shame, and while there was tension in the chilly air, anything assaultive was sonic. “You are supporting killers! You are supporting anti-Semites! You are supporting terror!” I was told by a man on a bullhorn (I paraphrase). A woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not very well. The people chanted “Gelb must go!” Anyone within hearing distance was exhorted to shame the wealthy donors who give to the Met. It went on and on. I found a chair outside near the opera house and tried to focus on my iPad, re-scanning Alice Goodman’s dense and perplexing, but often rapturous libretto. As it grew dark, my digital device glowed hopefully and I read the soothing but mysterious “Night Chorus”:

Is not the night restless for them?
Smoke detectors and burglar alarms
Go off without reason, the taped voice
Unwinds in the widow’s backyard.
No one bothers to look up from his work.

Once inside the Met, a few minutes to curtain, my friend, composer Rob Paterson and I got the full security treatment, my satchel thoroughly fondled. I was told to check my bag (a new one for me) and then we hustled to our orchestra seats. Of course the crowd was on edge, wondering how many disruptions would happen tonight. How bad will it get? Will the show actually go on?

It did, despite noises not included in the score. As conductor David Robertson entered to applause, there were few (but bellowed) boos. About 40 minutes in, before the “Ocean Chorus,” a man with a reedy voice shouted, “The murder of Klinghoffer must not be forgiven!” repeatedly. Some acoustic fluke of the Met hall (or I simply don’t understand acoustics) caused the voice, it seemed, to bounce and travel all over the audience, as if the yeller were tearing around the back of the room. He continued this way until, I learned later, he was escorted out. A woman behind me retorted, “We’re not here to forgive it!”

After intermission, maestro Robertson entered to more minority-report booing. A man in front of me turned to the dissenters: “Our applause is louder than your booing, so give it up, guys!” In the stunned silence that follows Klinghoffer’s shooting, a woman chirped, in a voice that strove to sound matter-of-fact, “It’s a piece of shit.” I don’t think she stayed, either.

Most reviews will be more incisive than that woman’s vulgar attempt to negate a complex work of art. Some have come out, glowing. Some are mixed. Immediately after the final curtain (around 10:35) and a joyous (no doubt relieved) standing ovation, I had to hustle over to Al Jazeera America to be a talking head on John Seigenthaler’s late-night show. I still need to write my formal review for NY1, to be broadcast later this week. There will be a range of opinions as to whether The Death of Klinghoffer is an operatic masterpiece, a flawed avant-garde provocation, or somewhere in between. But the fact that it played, and we came, is a kind of victory.

The Death of Klinghoffer has seven more performances through Nov 15. Opera can be expensive, but check the Met site for affordable seats or $25 Rush Tickets. Below is the Met's trailer for Klinghoffer, giving a sense of how Tom Morris (War Horse) staged this difficult but rewarding work.


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