Should the Metropolitan Opera Cancel “The Death of Klinghoffer”?

October 17, 2014

Some worry about the adverse psychological effects emerging from the Metropolitan Opera's production of "The Death of Klinghoffer."


The Metropolitan Opera's production of "The Death of Klinghoffer" opens Monday, October 20th. Operas rarely receive national and international news interest-but this one does. It is probably the most controversial opera the Met has put on in a century.

As reported in the New York Times, debates and protests have focused on possible anti-Semitism, the glorification of terrorism, artistic freedom, and the First Amendment.1 Some of the performers are even being threatened for playing the Palestinian roles, no matter what their personal views may be. So far, the Met has responded by canceling the movie simulcast worldwide.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"28622","attributes":{"alt":"trauma at sea","class":"media-image","id":"media_crop_4696647274289","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"2922","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]Although my wife and I are opera fans, we have not seen any of the few earlier productions of this performance in the US. The most recent one in St Louis went on more or less uneventfully. It included many community interfaith dialogues beforehand, and that may have helped, but the Opera Theatre of St Louis doesn’t have the international profile of the Met. Recently, public talks set up by the Met on the opera were also canceled.

I debated whether to see the Met production. However, it felt too emotionally uncomfortable, as I began to associate to related historical events, such as the murder of hijacked Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games.

This opera is indeed based on a real-life event. Leon Klinghoffer was a Jewish passenger on a cruise ship with his wife in 1985. He was ill enough to have to use a wheelchair. The ship was hijacked by members of the Palestine Front, who went on to kill Mr Klinghoffer.

As a psychiatrist, it is indeed the real-life connections of the opera that make it the most disturbing. For any living family and loved ones, including his 2 daughters, this has to be a strong trigger to traumatic memories of loss, though I don’t know (nor would I say if I did know) whether anyone developed PTSD or major depression as a consequence. I would suspect that the opera could also resonate with anyone who has been connected to a hijacking, whether that be by terrorists, criminals, governments, or others that seized power over them.

Moreover, the timing has turned out to be tragic. The opera must have been scheduled some time ago. Perhaps relationships between Israel and Hamas could have been better by now. However, given the recent major conflicts over the summer, they got worse, and so the opera may inflame the collective memories of trauma from that part of the world.

Even the most recent actions of ISIS, exemplified most strikingly in their beheadings of hostages, may psychologically connect to this opera. It appears that ISIS recognizes the value of psychological warfare by not trying to hide these beheadings, but rather to send in videos, likely hoping to terrorize their opponents. Imagine an opera based on the beheadings of one of the Americans. Would you want to see it?

Appropriately enough, the last premiere at the Met that caused such controversy was Salome in 1907. It, too, involved beheading-that of John the Baptist. It ended up being banned for decades.

Certainly, there can be positive aspects of the opera. The music may be as moving as much of that of its renowned composer John Adams. Something about the minds of terrorists may be learned, although cultural psychiatrists could surely provide better education on this topic.

Whether the Met ever consulted with mental health professionals along the way about their decision to show the opera is unknown-but I think they should have. I applaud the canceling of the simulcast, but I worry about the adverse psychological effects that are emerging and that are to come. If I were asked, I would have recommended against scheduling it in the first place. I would cancel it right now. Would you?

1. Cooper M. With new “Death of Klinghoffer,” furor only grows. New York Times. October 14, 2014.    Accessed October 17, 2014.