Review: Controversial ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ is dramatically charged, musically challenging

In spite of demonstrations outside Lincoln Center Plaza – plus some protesters who actually bought tickets and loudly voiced their objections throughout the performance itself, much to the annoyance of the other attendees – the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of the highly controversial 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” went forward on Monday night.

Three hours later, the show was over, the picketers had apparently gone home, and composer John Adams received a big round of applause when he joined the singers onstage at curtain call.

You may be wondering whether the work, which dramatizes the hijacking of a cruise ship by a group of Palestinian men and the murder of the wheelchair-bound Jewish New Yorker Leon Klinghoffer, actually is anti-Semitic, as some have claimed.

In spite of moments that are genuinely disturbing, having characters with anti-Semitic attitudes does not mean that the work endorses or encourages anti-Semitism. Is “The Merchant of Venice” anti-Semitic because of what happens to Shylock? Is “Sweeney Todd” in support of cannibalism?

The bigger question is whether a mainstream audience is ready to accept it as a musically challenging, structurally complex, highly theatrical piece. Adams is a minimalist, pattern-oriented composer, so don’t go expecting the lyricism of “La Boheme” or “Don Giovanni.”

Shifting in time episodically between the hijacking itself and confessional monologues by its survivors, we seem to have entered the haunted mind of the ship’s captain, a role played vigorously by Tony winner Paolo Szot (“South Pacific”).

After a mostly static first half, which is consumed mainly by a chorus of anonymous wailing refugees, the work becomes truly gripping, as the hijackers try to exert authority and win their demands. Alan Opie imbues Klinghoffer with dignity, while Michaela Martens captures his wife’s intense emotions.

Who knows when the Met will revive “The Death of Klinghoffer” in light of the public response that it’s aroused. Those who care about contemporary American opera should not miss the chance to catch this charged production.


“The Death of Klinghoffer” runs through Nov. 15 at the Metropolitan Opera. metopera.org