Opera Profile: The Ever-Controversial ‘Death of Klinghoffer’

By David Salazar

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is one of the most controversial operas ever created.

The work, written by librettist Alice Goodman and composer John Adams, had its world premiere on March 19, 1991, in Brussels, but upon appearing in NYC later that year, the work has been followed by major protests; it was initiated by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer, both portrayed in the opera. The two daughters noted that the portrayal of their parents in the work was “exploitation” and “anti-semitic.” Others have taken issue with Palestinians being offered an opportunity to express their historical grievances in a theatrical setting; this has also been viewed as anti-semitic.

Performances in Glyndebourne and Los Angeles were canceled. The work slowly made its way around Europe and the U.S., the controversy seemingly diminishing.

However, when the work appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, it was met with protests and the planned Live in HD performance was canceled.

Brief Plot Summary

The opera opens with two choruses of Exiled Palestinians and Exiled Jews.

The unnamed captain of the MS Achille Lauro talks about the events of the hijacking by terrorists. After the hijackers push the passengers of the ship into the restaurant, they are confronted by the captain and first officer. Molqi, one of the hijackers, explains the situation to everyone and eventually gets the Captain to order food and drink to be brought.

Another hijacker Mamoud talks to the Captain, who pleads that the people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate might meet and talk to one another. However, his plea is rejected.

Mamoud threatens all the passenger and is confronted by Leon Klinghoffer. Rambo, another hijacker responds violently. Omar, another hijacker, has a dispute with Molqi, who takes Klinghoffer away and kills him.

Marilyn Klinghoffer has no idea where her husband is. The hijackers threaten to kill more people, but the Captain offers his life up. Molqi reveals the death of Leon Klinghoffer.

The hijackers surrender and the surviving passengers disembark at the port. Marilyn learns of her husband’s death. She wishes that she could have died in his place.

Watch & Listen

Here is a recording of the opera.


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