Politicians demonstrate outside Met Opera, but 'Death of Klinghoffer' gets standing ovation

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NEW YORK — Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined demonstrators outside the Metropolitan Opera on Monday for an emotional protest against a musical work about the death of a Jewish man they say glorifies his Palestinian killers.

About 400 people stood behind police barricades chanting "Shame on the Met!" and carrying signs saying "The Met glorifies terrorism" before the company's first performance of "The Death of Klinghoffer."

The opera is based on the 1985 killing of passenger Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship hijacked by four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front. The 69-year-old was shot in his wheelchair and pushed overboard.

American composer John Adams' opera has been a lightning rod since February, when it was scheduled for this season. The first large demonstration came on the Met's Sept. 22 season opening night, featuring a Mozart work, when protesters jeered at arriving spectators.

Standing across the street from Lincoln Center, Giuliani said he wanted to warn people that this opera "is a distorted work."

"If you listen, you will see that the emotional context of the opera truly romanticizes the terrorists," he said.

But opera expert Fred Plotkin said Adams depicts the Klinghoffers as his work's moral spine.

"Does this opera present the killers in a favorable light? No," Plotkin said. "Are the Klinghoffers far and away the most sympathetic characters in the opera, the ones we care about most? I believe so."

Monday's performance went on with a few orchestrated disruptions: Boos were shouted from scattered seats, and a voice kept yelling from a balcony, "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgotten!" The evening ended with a standing ovation that drowned out any heckling.

Earlier in the day, a rabbi led Jewish teens in a prayer vigil. Youths sat at their makeshift prayer spot opposite the Met, discussing Hebrew scriptures.

"We're here because the Met is glorifying the killing of a Jew, and we must speak out — we're the next generation," 15-year-old Shabbos Kestenbaum said.

Rabbi Avi Weiss said the opera's music "extols" the terrorists, beginning with the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians," while the Klinghoffers come off as shallow, frivolous characters who enter after the lyrics, "I've got no money left. I gave all my money for the taxi."

"The language is explosive. It's radioactive. It's dangerous," the rabbi said. "It inspires violence."

In fact, it is exiled Jews arriving in Palestine who've spent their last savings to reach their new home in the desert.

The Met canceled the international movie theater and radio broadcasts in November amid pressure from Jewish groups, especially the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. Met general manager Peter Gelb, whose father was Jewish, said the decision was made "as a compromise gesture."

The Met issued a statement this week saying "the fact that 'Klinghoffer' grapples with the complexities of an unconscionable real-life act of violence does not mean it should not be performed. ... 'Klinghoffer' is neither anti-Semitic nor does it glorify terrorism."

The Klinghoffers' daughters, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, released comments through the ADL to be included in the Met program. They say they believe the arts "can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. 'The Death of Klinghoffer' does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew."

Plotkin noted many "Klinghoffer" opponents, including Weiss, have never seen it performed live. Weiss said he has read the libretto.

Advertising for the opera comes with the slogan: "See it. Then decide."

"The Death of Klinghoffer" premiered in Brussels in 1991, with little controversy, then in various European cities and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it was greeted with praise and anger.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who hasn't seen the opera, said the rights of cultural institutions to put on works of art have to be respected.

"We don't have to agree with what's in the exhibit, but we agree with the right of the artist and the cultural institution to put that forward to the public," he said.

"The Death of Klinghoffer" runs through Nov. 15.

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