Met Opera premiere of controversial 'Death of Klinghoffer' gets standing ovation

The Metropolitan Opera premiere of "The Death of Klinghoffer", a show that dramatizes a 1985 terror attack on a cruise ship and critics say glamorizes Palestinian terrorists, received a standing ovation Monday night.

The opera is based on the 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.

The Associated Press reported that the performance went ahead 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 AP reported that any heckling after the show was drowned out by the ovation.

Outside, about 400 people, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, stood behind police barricades chanting "Shame on the Met!" and carrying signs saying "The Met glorifies terrorism".

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.

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."

The opera, by American composer John Adams, 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.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.