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Opera depicting a modern tragedy sparks protest

An opera slated to open at the Met in New York has stirred very strong feelings beyond the arts community. "The Death of Klinghoffer" is based on a real and recent tragedy: the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship and the murder of a disabled Jewish-American passenger in 1985. Jeffrey Brown examines the criticism that the production glorifies terrorism.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight: a battle over the role of arts in portraying history.

    For some audiences, opera remains a remote and less accessible form of entertainment. But a new production opening in New York City tonight is stirring some very strong feelings about — outside the arts world.

    Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is one of a number of political and religious figures protesting outside the Metropolitan Opera.

    Jeffrey Brown has our report.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The opera is called "The Death of Klinghoffer." Like so many operas throughout history, it's a tragedy told through music, words, and stagecraft, and is filled with drama and emotion.

    But this is based on a very real tragedy in recent history: the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, off the coast of Egypt in October 1985 By four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front who murdered a 69-year-old disabled Jewish-American passenger named Leon Klinghoffer.

  • PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN:

    All civilized peoples welcome the apprehension of the terrorists responsible for the seizure of Achille Lauro and the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer. The pursuit of justice is well-served by this cooperative effort to ensure that these terrorists are prosecuted and punished for their crimes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The renowned American composer John Adams, whose work is regularly performed throughout the world, wrote the opera six years after those events, in 1991.

    He's tackled recent history in other operas as well, including one titled "Nixon in China."

    This afternoon, Adams told me what drew him originally to this story.

    JOHN ADAMS, Composer, "The Death of Klinghoffer": Well, all of my operas deal with what I call American mythology. I wrote an opera, "Doctor Atomic," about the atomic bomb.

    "Nixon in China" is fundamentally about the collision of capitalism and communism. And "The Death of Klinghoffer" is about terrorism, which is really one of the, unfortunately, essential psychic experiences of our American life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yet controversy has followed the work from the beginning, some saying it shows sympathy for the Palestinian extremists and even glorifies terrorism.

    Included in that group are Leon Klinghoffer's own daughters, Lisa and Ilsa. In today's Haaretz, the Israeli paper, they wrote that the opera — quote — "presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. The opera rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father."

    A statement from the daughters will be included in the Metropolitan Opera Company playbill.

    Meanwhile, a planned broadcast of the opera in theaters and on radio was canceled, out of fear that it could encourage anti-Semitism abroad, part of a deal struck with the Anti-Defamation League. Protesters gathered last month outside the Met to demand the opera be called off altogether. Another protest is planned for tonight's opening.

    The ADL is not involved in those demonstrations. But, today, its president, Abraham Foxman, told me of his objections to the opera.

  • ABRAHAM FOXMAN, Anti-Defamation League:

    It glorifies terrorism. It gives it a status and stature of this criminal act, a terrorist act. It makes the murderer a person of cause. And all he was, was an anti-Semitic racist murderer. He was a terrorist. And this opera makes him out to be some hero, some folk hero, some image.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Foxman also responded to the criticism that the protests are a form of censorship.

  • ABRAHAM FOXMAN:

    Mr. Adams has a right to do whatever it wants. And the opera, Metropolitan, also has a right to decide what it wants to put on. I think it's a terrible judgment that they have made, because the Metropolitan Opera gives it an imprimatur, a stature, of saying, this is serious, this is significant. And all it is, is glorifying a murder.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Metropolitan Opera Company has addressed the controversy head on with advertising that says, "See it, then decide."

    Many critics, in fact, have said they have not and will not see the opera. And composer John Adams believes there's a deep misunderstanding of the ideas and goals of his work.

  • JOHN ADAMS:

    I think to typify this opera as creating moral equivalency between a terrorist act and defenseless hostages is a complete, hysterical misrepresentation of the facts.

    I think probably what unhinges the opera's critics is the fact that we do present both mythic narratives, so we represent the narrative of the Jewish people and the narrative of the Palestinian people.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Protesters tonight will use wheelchairs as symbols of the slain Leon Klinghoffer. As he prepared to attend the opening, John Adams had this say about the role of art and artists in addressing history.

  • JOHN ADAMS:

    I think that all the great dramatists, whether it was Shakespeare, or Aeschylus, Wagner, or Verdi, have taken historical events, communal events, events that have impacted people, whether they be regicide, or battles between nations or races, and they — through their art, they have raised these conflicts and these human dramas to the level of myth and they have raised it to a poetic level, where we can experience this as — on the levels of deepest feeling and of understanding that reading history books will never provide.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "The Death of Klinghoffer" is scheduled for eight performances at the Met through November 15.

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