A growing controversy over the cancellation of international broadcasts of John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, has set off an international furore. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.
Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the
same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the
same winter and summer, as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare
New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, one of the jewels of the classical music universe, has managed to get itself into a right royal pickle, all right. Some months ago, with great enthusiasm, they had announced they would be putting their co-production with the English National Opera of John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, on stage in New York – and on the Met’s international HD live broadcast series in some 2000 theatres around the world.
As the Met had originally and gushingly described the work, composed in 1991 to a libretto by Alice Goodman, on their website, “In what many John Adams admirers consider his greatest operatic composition, the Met’s new production premieres almost 30 years after the events chronicled in this work about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Klinghoffer overwhelmed audiences when it premiered just a few years after the tragic incident; now it finally arrives at the Met — the third work by Adams (Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China) to be staged here in the last seven years. Paulo Szot stars in the leading role, and David Robertson conducts this powerful new production by director Tom Morris (War Horse).”
Of course this opera is not just about the hijacking of a cruise ship – it also just happens to be about the gruesome killing of Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old invalid, confined to a wheel chair, a Jewish tourist on that ship when Palestine Liberation Organisation terrorists took over the vessel. And there’s where the problems began – and then spiralled out of control for the Met.
The wondrously staged Nixon in China, with a score often called minimalist neoclassical, had also been deeply controversial in earlier years, in part because of its unsympathetic portrayal of President Richard Nixon as a vain, shallow man, thoroughly outclassed and out-thought by Chao En-lai, during Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing. Nixon was finally staged by the Met last year, long after it had been composed, and well after other opera companies around the US and the world had performed it to great applause. Adams’ Doctor Atomic is about Robert Oppenheimer, the tortured scientific genius who led the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.
At first, the Met was delighted to announce that besides being on its stage, the production would be a part of its highly acclaimed international network of live HD-video projections in art house cinemas such as South Africa’s Cinema Nouveau theatres, all around the world. And then, suddenly, everything went rather pear-shaped for the poor Met.
Following the release of the international broadcast schedule for the new season, the head of the Met, Peter Gelb, said he had been inundated with complaints about the inclusion of Klinghoffer on that worldwide schedule. Or, as the Guardian reported his decision, “As with many other Met productions, opera bosses scheduled a live HD broadcast to 2,000 cinemas around the world; that event, planned for 15 November, has now been axed. ‘I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,’ said Peter Gelb, general manager for the Met, ‘but I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.’ ”
In further interviews, Gelb insisted the Met was not pressured to cancel its broadcast by any of the Met’s donors, but that he thought some of those donors might well have been under pressure from yet other people who have strong feelings about the work. Given the Met’s decision, they would now have to pick a different work to be part of the “Live in HD” series, a choice that it would be announced at a later date. Of course that next announcement will spark a whole new round of reciprocal catcalling about the cancellation, given the nature of this story, and thus a whole new set of headlines.
The broadcast cancellation, although not the eight live performances in New York City, now seems to have been precipitated when Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer, the late Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters, gave Adams’ opera a real shout down for “perverting the terrorist murder of our father. Its rationalisation of terrorism and false moral equivalencies provide no thoughtfulness or insight,” according to a statement that actually came from the Anti-Defamation League’s offices. The statement went on, referring to the two women’s views, saying that “We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theatre and music can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. The Death of Klinghoffer does no such thing.”
Well, maybe they have a point. He was their father after all, and those guys really did rather brutally kill him, and they do get some of the best notes in the evening. Once the Met’s decision was announced, the ADL praised it, saying, “While the opera itself is not anti-Semitic, there is a concern the opera could be used in foreign countries to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism.” Gelb’s opera company, while it has cancelled the broadcast, will put a letter from the Klinghoffer daughters into the programme, in which they express their concerns over the work.
But after he had heard about Gelb’s decision, composer Adams called the Met’s volte-face “regrettable”, arguing their decision encourages “the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing. My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder. It acknowledges the dreams and the grievances of not only the Israeli but also the Palestinian people, and in no form condones or promotes violence, terrorism or anti-Semitism.”
And then the librettist, Alice Goodman (who just, by the way, used to be Jewish until she converted to become an Anglican clergywoman and who now lives in England – and it would seem that it is her words that are the key, rather than Adams’ notes, after all) heard about Gelb’s decision. Not to be outdone, she called it “wrong and contradictory”. She went on to add that she was rather surprised “that the Met did not have a plan in place as to how it was going to address the controversy that this opera always brings with it.” There must have been a very arched eyebrow accompanying that statement when she issued it.
Goodman dismissed the idea Klinghoffer on HD could somehow trigger a wave of global pogroms, adding, “The whole idea of pogroms emerging from the simulcast of a modern opera is more than faintly absurd. I think it is very unfortunate. It seems to me… a wrong and a contradictory reaction. There is nothing anti-Semitic in Klinghoffer apart from one aria, which is sung by an anti-Semitic character and is clearly flagged as such. The simulcasts from the Met are watched and loved by all kinds of people who couldn’t possibly get to a live performance. The notion that this can be watched live [in New York] but not in a cinema is bizarre and foolish, and I regret it.”
Well sometimes there is rioting over music. Theatregoers did go on the rampage when “The Rite of Spring” premiered in Paris a century ago, but, of course, that wasn’t over the dancers’ movements or the storyline. Rather, it was that harsh, even brutal, score, starkly different from anything else heard up to that moment, that seems to have set them off. But ballet lovers go wild for it now, usually applauding rather than throwing chairs or breaking out into fistfights. And nobody has ever staged a pogrom as a result of Fagan’s Hebraic cantillation in his solo in Oliver! either.
By now, not to be outdone, the English National Opera’s Artistic Director, John Berry, which had, after all, co-produced the production and premiered it two years back in Britain, added his two cents worth when he said, “We completely believe in this piece and the work of John Adams. I personally believe that it is not anti-Semitic and I hope that audiences seeing the work in New York later in the year will come to understand this for themselves and be moved by this exceptional opera. The work was warmly received in London and deemed a great success.”
Of course this particular opera has been performed in New York City previously. Back in 2009, there was a controversial production at the renowned Julliard School of Music. When angry letters started showing up in the New York Times over the work, ending with the incantation, “Shame, Shame!”, the school’s president, Joseph Polisi, responded in a column, “I believe the ‘shame’ for Juilliard would more likely have occurred if we had not had the vision and the courage to present artistic works which we believe to be transformative compositions, worthy of presentation by our students and of reflection by our audiences. If we had decided against producing Adams’s opera in an effort to not offend audience members, we would have ignored our mission as an institution and community that teaches and enlightens through the wonder and power of the arts.”
And in a performance in St Louis, Missouri three years ago, the opera company there organised interfaith dialogues prior to the production. Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, chair of the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at St Louis’ Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, told reporters that Jews and Muslims had discussed the opera at those efforts and the issues the work raised, noting, “I think it was a constructive experience.”
Not surprisingly, though, over the years, the opera has had more than its share of detractors as well. Its 1991 world premiere at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels was postponed for two months until the first Gulf War was over. Performances at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the Los Angeles Opera (companies that had actually commissioned it) were cancelled at that period – and it wasn’t until this March for it finally to get live performances in in Southern California.
In weighing this vexed question of whether or not the work does swerve a tad too close to the anti-Semitism, as charged by some, New York Times music critic Michael Cooper commented that, yes, the work “is famous for its choruses of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews. By going beyond the killing — Mr. Klinghoffer was shot to death in his wheelchair and thrown overboard — and delving into the motivations and backgrounds of its characters, including the terrorists, it drew complaints from some critics who saw it as trying to establish the equivalence of the two groups’ grievances. But it has always had champions as well: John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times in 2003 that ‘in the end “Klinghoffer” is not anti-American or antibourgeois or anti-Semitic but pro-human.’ ”
But before South African readers smugly shake their heads too vigorously over these Klinghoffer follies, it would be good to recall the shape of some recent arguments over artistic integrity and free expression closer to home – both the anger of some and the fecklessness of others.
Beyond the furore over Zanele Muholi’s photographs, there was the defacement of Brett Murray’s over-exposed Jacob Zuma in The Spear painting, when at least some antagonists insisted it had attacked Zuma’s dignity and humanity, holding him up to public ridicule. And so, too, there was Ayanda Mbalula’s work, Three Men on a Boat. That work had suffered the indignity of pre-emptive removal at the Johannesburg Art Fair by the organisers, in response to criticisms that had not yet even been received. And most recently, of course, there has been the removal from the EWN website of a sharp-tongued political cartoon which some who saw it insisted it insulted both politicians (okay, fair game, there, perhaps) and over-credulous voters (not fair game).
Did the Met find itself in some of these very same dilemmas – but manage to put its foot right in it, by neither standing fast on artistic freedom grounds nor cancelling the project outright as just too complicated to deal with in the current climate and take the hit?
In the case of Klinghoffer, however, there is one other small niggle, one irritating little itch that can’t quite be stilled. Was the decision to cancel the broadcasts – but not the live performances – done in response to an incipient wave of criticism over the work itself, or in response to concerns there would be some possible commercial fallout, somehow, by broadcasting it globally? Was there a concern somewhere by the series’ broadcast sponsors that showcasing the work could harm their commercial presence around the world – either by riling up those who felt it was anti-Semitic, or perhaps by inciting those who took comfort in their sense that it just might be? It is true the Met is in some financial heartburn, what with its rising costs and fundraising a hard road to travel these days for the arts.
Without question, artistic freedom is never going to be a simple task to defend, as long as there are costs involved. One thing is for sure, however. This writer is now damned angry he will not be able to see the production, so that he can judge for himself about its aesthetic quality, the inner meaning of the work, or its artistry. And he is mad as hell about that. DM