Share story

NEW YORK — At the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” on Monday night, men in suits and women in gowns traveled through a maze of police barricades and protesters shouting “Shame!” and “Terror is not art!” One demonstrator held aloft a white handkerchief splattered with red, while others, in wheelchairs set up for the occasion, lined Columbus Avenue.

And political figures, including former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, joined a rally, several hundred strong at Lincoln Center, to denounce an opera that has become the object of a charged debate about art, anti-Semitism and politics.

But after months of escalating protests, which included threats of opera officials and online harassment of the cast, “Klinghoffer” finally went on, only a few minutes late. There were loud cheers when David Robertson, the conductor, arrived in the pit and a few isolated boos after the opening “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” ended.

By intermission, there had been only one major disruption: A man shouted, “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.”

The opera paused, then resumed.

Met officials said at intermission that the man had been arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said then that he thought the performance was going well.

“There are obviously some people who came here to be heard, and unfortunately they’re disrupting the performance, but we were prepared for worse, I think,” Gelb said.

“And, of course, we’re only halfway through. The thing is, I would like everyone to relax and be able to perform and for the audience to be able to enjoy it.”

“Klinghoffer,” considered a masterpiece by some critics, has long aroused passions, simply because of its subject matter: the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jewish passenger in a wheelchair, by members of the Palestine Liberation Front during the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

But the 1991 opera arrived at a moment when many Jews are anguished by anti-Semitic episodes in Europe and reactions to the conflict this summer in the Gaza Strip. It also has ignited what sounded at times like a revival of the culture wars of the 1990s, in which works of art became fodder for intense political debate.

Giuliani, a Republican, joined protesters outside the opera house Monday evening, charging that the work offered “a distorted view of history,” while the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, earlier in the day defended the Met’s right to perform it. He said Giuliani “had a history of challenging cultural institutions when he disagreed with their content.”

Security was tight at the opera house, with many uniformed police in sight and all bags checked. Gelb, the Met’s general manager, who said that he had received threats and that some cast members had been harassed online, addressed the performers and musicians at Friday’s final dress rehearsal to tell them about enhanced security measures.

The large rally across from Lincoln Center drew some Jewish leaders, and current and former elected officials including former Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat; Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat; and Rep. Peter King, a Republican.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended the opera, Met officials said.

One protester at the rally, Hilary Barr, 55, a pediatric nurse from Westchester County, said she believed that the opera made excuses for terrorism.

“By putting this on a stage in the middle of Manhattan, the message is, ‘Go out, murder someone, be a terrorist and we’ll write a play about you,’ ” she said.

A handful of people held a counterdemonstration. James Saslow, 66, a professor of theater history at Queens College, carried a sign: “A work of art about a subject is not a work in favor of that subject.”

The protests were initially led by several smaller Jewish groups and conservative religious organizations.

The larger Anti-Defamation League brokered a compromise with the Met — which pleased few on either side — in which plans to show the opera to a wider audience in movie theaters were dropped, but the New York production would otherwise go on.

Leaders in the more liberal Reform Judaism movement have condemned the opera, but did not call for its cancellation.