De Blasio and Giuliani Speak Out on Met’s ‘Klinghoffer’ as Protests Loom
OCT. 20, 2014
As the Metropolitan Opera prepared to give its first performance of John Adams’s 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” on Monday night, the police got ready for a protest outside the opera house, security was heightened inside, and the debate over the work spread to City Hall.
As Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and Republican presidential candidate, announced that he would be joining protesters outside the opera house Monday evening to denounce the work, which he said offered “a distorted view of history,” the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, defended the Met’s right to perform it. He said that Mr. Giuliani “had a history of challenging cultural institutions when he disagreed with their content.”
“I don’t think that’s the American way,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference Monday morning in Broad Channel, Queens, apparently alluding to Mr. Giuliani’s efforts as mayor to stop funding the Brooklyn Museum of Art after it mounted an exhibition that Mr. Giuliani deemed offensive. “I think the American way is to respect freedom of speech. Simple as that.”
Mr. Giuliani said in a telephone interview that he had intervened in Brooklyn because he did not believe public money should be used to help fund an exhibition that many found offensive. He said that he was not questioning the Met’s right to stage “Klinghoffer,” or joining the many protesters who want the production canceled, but simply speaking out against the opera.
“I’m not saying it should be banned,” Mr. Giuliani said. “I’m saying that people should be warned when they see it that it’s a distorted view of history.”
The opera, which explores the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, and the murder of a disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, is considered a masterpiece by many music critics. But it has also drawn impassioned protests, and, ahead of this production, some threats, from people — many of whom have never seen the opera — who believe that because it gives voice to the grievances of the hijackers, it justifies or celebrates their actions. Some go further, charging the opera is anti-Semitic, which is disputed by the Met, the opera’s creators and the Anti-Defamation League.
One of the people organizing the protests, Morton A. Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, called for the Met to cancel all of its performances of “Klinghoffer,” which he described as an “operatic Kristallnacht” — referring to the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom that swept across Nazi Germany. In an interview he criticized the leaders of major Jewish groups for not taking a more active role in the protests.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, who said that he had received threats related to the opera and that some cast members had been harassed online, addressed the performers and musicians at Friday’s final dress rehearsal to tell them about enhanced security measures. “We just want to take every precaution so that everybody is safe and secure on Monday,” he said.
Mr. Giuliani called for peaceful protest. “There shouldn’t be any threats here,” Mr. Giuliani said. “This is a historical, sociological and artistic issue — not some issue of violence.”
While the opera, and the Met’s decision to stage it, are being attacked by a number of religious and political figures, both are being praised by some artistic figures.
“It is not only permissible for the Met to do this piece — it’s required for the Met to do the piece,” Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, said in an interview. “It is a powerful and important opera. It tackles an issue that, as we are seeing now, is radioactive in our culture. And precisely because of its radioactivity, that’s why it needs to be tackled.”
The protests were initially spearheaded by several smaller Jewish groups and conservative religious organizations. The larger Anti-Defamation League brokered a compromise with the Met — which pleased few on either side — in which the Met agreed to drop its plans to show the opera in cinemas around the world but said it would still go on with its New York production. Several current and former elected officials joined a protest last month on opening night of the opera season, at which one speaker called for the opera’s set to be “burned to the ground.”
More recently, several leaders in the more liberal Reform Judaism movement have condemned the opera, but stopped short of calling for the cancellation of the performances.
Mr. Giuliani — something of an opera buff who noted that he has 32,000 music tracks on his computer and 14 different versions of Verdi’s “Otello” — said in the phone interview that unlike many of the opera’s critics, he was familiar with “Klinghoffer,” owned a recording of it, and that he had listened to it “five or six times” and read the libretto.
“If we listen to it just as an opera, and close our eyes and don’t read the libretto, it’s a good opera,” he said. “I think John Adams is one of the great modern composers.”
But Mr. Giuliani said that he objected to what he called the opera’s “completely inaccurate description” of the murder. “It didn’t tell the true story; it created for history a myth, and contributed to a sense of moral equivalency — that we should treat both sides the same,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that he believed such a view had troubling foreign policy repercussions.
As mayor, Mr. Giuliani made headlines, and earned a rebuke from the Clinton administration, in 1995, when he expelled Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, from a concert for world leaders at Lincoln Center the year after Mr. Arafat had shared a Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Giuliani cited the Achille Lauro hijacking as one of the reasons he expelled Mr. Arafat.
In criticizing the opera, Mr. Giuliani found himself on the same side as one of his former antagonists, Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer, who represented the Brooklyn Museum of Art when Mr. Giuliani sought to cut its city financing. Mr. Abrams criticized “Klinghoffer,” and the Met’s decision to stage it, last week in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal.
Another prominent First Amendment lawyer, Martin Garbus, wrote an article in The New York Daily News defending “Klinghoffer” and the Met. “Unlike many of the protesters, I have seen the opera (when it opened in New York in 1991),” he wrote. “It is not anti-Semitic.”
It was not the first time religious leaders have picketed the Met. In 1952 the old opera house was picketed by Roman Catholic leaders who argued that the company’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” was antireligious propaganda.
“The opera ‘Don Carlo’ is a mockery of religion,” one sign read.