Berkeley composer John Adams’ opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ opens to protests in New York

People, some in wheelchairs, gather at Lincoln Center, with the Metropolitan Opera House in the background, as they protest "Death of Klinghoffer" Monday, Oct 20, 2014, in New York. The protest centered around the opera at the Metropolitan Opera that they call anti-Semitic. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
People, some in wheelchairs, gather at Lincoln Center, with the Metropolitan Opera House in the background, as they protest composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer which opened Monday in New York. The protesters say the opera is anti-Semitic. Photo: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

Last night’s performance of Berkeley-based composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York wasn’t a typical opera opening. Protesters, many in wheelchairs, lined Columbus Avenue in front of Lincoln Center, and police were stationed inside and outside the opera house.

The New York Times reported that “a roar of cheers” greeted Adams when he took the stage at the end of the opera. Despite fears of disruption, only two small incidents marred the performance. One man who shouted, “The death of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven,” was escorted out of the opera house and arrested for disorderly conduct.

Adams’ opera has been acclaimed by critics since its debut in 1991 as a modern masterpiece. But since then, it has also attracted vehement criticism from some groups because of what they see as a glorification of terrorism. The opera is based on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front. Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jewish passenger, was killed by the hijackers.

John Adams
John Adams: will make his first public appearance after a controversial Met opening at Uncharted in Berkeley this Saturday. Photo: courtesy John Adams

On yesterday’s PBS Newshour, Adams responded to those who criticize the opera as anti-Semitic.


“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,” he said to interviewer Jeffrey Brown. “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.

“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,” Adams said.

Adams will be speaking in conversation with Matías Tarnopolsky, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas this Saturday. It will be his first public appearance since the Met opening.

Visit www.berkeleyideas.com to buy your tickets for Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, which is organized by Berkeleyside.