NEW YORK - Defying picketers and audience disruptions, New York's Metropolitan Opera has opened "The Death of Klinghoffer," which explores the psyche of Palestinian hijackers who killed a wheelchair-bound US Jew.
Leading US composer John Adams operatized the 1985 seizure of the Achille Lauro cruise-liner as a way to explore the dueling grievances of Israelis and Palestinians. But "The Death of Klinghoffer" has outraged some Israel supporters who say it unduly humanizes murderers.
In an unusually tense display at the normally placid Lincoln Center, police stood guard in the lobby and set up barricades outside the entrance where picketers sat in wheelchairs in remembrance of Leon Klinghoffer, who was shot and thrown overboard by Palestinian hijackers demanding that Israel release prisoners.
The first act was briefly halted as an audience member repeatedly shouted, "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!" Another person later yelled out a profanity and numerous spectators booed periodically during the opera, including when Adams himself came out during the curtain call, which mostly drew applause and a standing ovation.
The Met's general manager Peter Gelb said he wanted to stage "The Death of Klinghoffer" because it was "one of the most powerful contemporary operas of the last 25 years" and insisted that the production clearly cast the killing as unjust.
"We will not allow this opera to be suppressed, since it is neither anti-Semitic nor a glorification of terrorism," he wrote in a note in the audience's playbill.
No end to controversy
Klinghoffer's two daughters, allowed to present a counterpoint in the playbill, said that the opera "sullies the memory of a fine, principled, sweet man" who was on a Mediterranean vacation with their terminally ill mother.
"It presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew," they wrote.
"Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance," they wrote.
The Met said it hoped to start a conversation, with audience members encouraged to post their thoughts online.
In one nod to the criticism, the Met scrapped a planned broadcast of the opera in movie theatres around the world, with Gelb saying that the transmission would be "inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe."
"The Death of Klinghoffer" has been controversial since its premiere in 1991 at La Monnaie in Brussels but the latest production has come under particular fire. The Met is one of the world's leading opera companies, New York has a large Jewish community and the production comes at a time of especially heated passions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.