Posted in Observations, Opera

No Strength of Conviction

"The Death of Klinghoffer"--Opera Theater of St. Louis (Photo: Ken Howard)
“The Death of Klinghoffer”–Opera Theater of St. Louis (Photo: Ken Howard)

I’m furious.

The Metropolitan Opera, per General Manager Peter Gelb, has cancelled both the HD telecast and the radio broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” scheduled for next season. To anyone who has heard the opera (more about that later), the given reason for doing so is couched in something of a non-sequiter: that an international showing of the work would be “inappropriate in a time of rising anti-Semitism.” In the next breath, Gelb maintains that he doesn’t feel the work is anti-Semitic, but he understands the “genuine concern of the international Jewish community.”

Baloney.

The prime mover in this is Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, supposedly representing the interests of the Klinghoffers’ daughters. In truth this is an attempt to stir a pot that doesn’t exist. Unlike Mr. Foxman, who admits he’s never seen the opera and whom I seriously doubt has even heard the music or read the libretto, I’ve listened to a recording of the work, and no way is “The Death of Klinghoffer” anti-Semitic, nor in my opinion, anti-Zionist.

What John Adams and Alice Goodman have produced is a multi-faceted, sensitive opera designed to represent multiple points of view and—horrors!—to make the audience think. The music is some of Adams’ best—eerily beautiful, yet powerful. What I suspect really galls the ADL and their supporters is that the work is not as one-sided as they would wish. The Palestinians on stage voice their aspirations; they’re not merely cardboard villains. Though Adams and Goodman make it very clear that Leon Klinghoffer’s murder was an unjustified, horrific act, this is evidently not enough for those who operate on knee-jerk reactions.

Look, I’m Jewish and I had problems with “The Death of Klinghoffer” before I listened to it. My reservations weren’t political, but emotional—my parents were of the same generation as Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it didn’t take much imagination to see them on the Achille Lauro. But having listened to the opera, I think it’s a major work that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I had planned to attend the HD telecast, but unfortunately this opportunity hasn’t just been taken away—it’s been stolen from me and everyone else who had been eagerly looking forward to seeing it. The artistic loss can’t be denied: John Adams is a composer of enormous stature whose works are among the most intriguing any opera house has to offer. The Met’s productions of “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” both of which I’ve seen, are on a very short list of outright successes Peter Gelb has enjoyed during his tenure as General Manager.

I have a message for the ADL: You don’t speak for me. Abraham Foxman, he who blithely admits he never saw the opera, apparently wanted the entire run of “The Death of Klinghoffer” to be cancelled. But, as he ever so smugly told the New York Times, “We compromised.” The fact that a special interest group is evidently dictating repertory to the Metropolitan Opera should give anyone with a brain some pause.

To the Klinghoffer daughters: Your loss was immeasurable. I know you don’t see it this way, but to those familiar with the opera, John Adams and Alice Goodman have honored the memory of your parents, not exploited it. The fact that you are evidently using your influence to suppress, rather than promote, an opportunity for discourse is in itself an injustice.

To Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera: Your cancellation of the HD telecast of “The Death of Klinghoffer” is the worst expression of cowardice I’ve seen in years. You caved to political pressure in the same way that Hollywood and TV caved during the McCarthy and “Red Channels” years. You’ve compromised the very mission of the arts: to provoke thought and discussion. Integrity once lost can never be regained. So the next time your little minions call me for a donation, the answer will be no. And Peter? You just wrote the first paragraph of your obituary.

The “Klinghoffer” controversy is just one more example of the extreme fear exhibited by religious and/or special interest groups in the face of any expression that departs from orthodoxy. A number of years ago it was Catholic groups that protested the showing of Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” at the Brooklyn Museum (If you recall, the artist had used elephant dung in addition to more traditional media in executing the portrait). Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to withdraw city aid to the museum, which filed suit in federal court and won on First Amendment grounds.

Ultimately this type of suppression is unvarnished paternalism. It stands for the proposition that only Mommy and Daddy know what’s best for you. Interest groups that apply this type of pressure to arts organizations fundamentally distrust the audience, no doubt out of fear that their own ideas will be rejected. The only comfort one can take away is that those who suppress are on the wrong side of history.

Will the ADL up the ante next time by resorting to book-burning? Shonda.

 

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Posted in Television

Game Changer

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Ah….another Monday morning, another post-mortem (and I do mean “mortem”) of a “Game of Thrones” season finale. The world weighs in!

The big news of course was Tywin Lannister’s murder at the hands—er, crossbow—of his hated son, Tyrion. With brother Jamie facilitating his escape, Tyrion then strangles Shae in his father’s bed, revenge for her perjured testimony as well as getting it on with the old man. He confronts Tywin, now sitting on the un-Iron Throne, and wangs him twice with what appears to be Joffrey’s crossbow. You remember…the one he used for target practice on that poor prostitute, Ros. Lovely continuity there.

I’ll miss Charles Dance, a terrific actor who plays malevolence like nobody’s business. I loved how Tywin kept on lying through his teeth even as Tyrion loaded that crossbow. I only wish the show runners had retained George R.R. Martin’s account of Tyrion’s reaction to his father’s passing: [paraphrase] “So the Lannisters don’t shit gold after all.” George R.R. Martin is a genius.

In other news, Stannis Baratheon and his troops have arrived at the Wall to eliminate the White Walkers. Good luck. As Mance Rayder observes, they’re not dressed for the weather, and given that Stannis isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer, Melisandre or no Melisandre, I hope he’s dispatched soon. And Dany has locked up two of her dragons in the catacombs after they’ve started scorching children instead of sheep during their flyovers. However, the biggest and baddest dragon is still at large, so you can definitely plan on more barbeques in the future.

But the best was saved for last. Arya came face to face with Brienne, and the look of recognition on the latter’s face, not only of Arya’s identity but the sense that she was seeing her younger self, was lovely (kudos to Gwendoline Christie). I figured the Hound’s days were numbered anyway, what with the festering wound in his neck, but Arya’s refusal to show any mercy whatsoever by saving him from a lingering death was rather chilling. Granted, he was on her Hit Parade for murdering her friend, the butcher’s boy, way back in Season One, but how many times had he saved her hide since, even if monetarily motivated?

Watching Arya sail away on a ship headed North (“Valar morghulis” to you, too) was a great way to open the door to new possibilities. Hopefully it will finally result in a Stark meet-up with a family member. That clan has been so inept at reunions that they really should consider posting on Craigslist’s Missed Connections.

My final impressions of Season 4 of “Game of Thrones” ?

I’m satisfied, but….I really would have preferred to end the season with Lady Stoneheart’s appearance instead of Tywin’s murder. Since I don’t spoil, you’ll just have to hang on until next season to see why. And I think you’ll agree with me.

I wish Oberyn Martell had stuck around longer instead of having his head squished like a grape.

The press reaction to a certain plot twist has bugged me no end. There’s been a lot of chatter about Lysa’s drop through the Moon Door a couple of episodes back, but not the substance of her babbling that preceded it. If you’ll recall, she reminded Petyr Baelish of her collaboration in his plotting: writing the letter in which she accused the Lannisters of poisoning Jon Arryn, her late husband, and stealing Tyrion’s dagger in order to further Catelyn Stark’s belief that the attempt on Brandon’s life was his doing. So Brandon’s would-be killer was actually dispatched by Petyr Baelish? Was this merely revenge for Catelyn’s spurning him so many years before, or the opening salvo of his grab for power in setting off what was sure to be a civil war between the kingdoms?

Ten months is a long time to wait.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Busting Out June

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” looms ahead, and by my count, we have two potential shockers to go if the show runners intend to wrap up the events in “A Storm of Swords,” the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s saga, this Sunday. Can it be done in one episode? If not, I’m curious to see their choice as we’ll soon start another countdown to a new season.

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Until “Orange is the New Black” appeared with new episodes on Netflix last Friday (I’m now 5.5 episodes in, and it’s as good as, if not better than Season One), spring had me focused on books and baseball. The baseball you already know about. The books, though, unlike the New York Mets, have been more consistently rewarding.

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI had been disappointed by Donna Tartt before—there are few novels with a bigger letdown than “The Little Friend,” particularly if you’ve read her first book, the riveting”The Secret History.” But “The Goldfinch,” her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is far more satisfying—that is, until 7/8ths through, when things take an oblique left turn.

“The Goldfinch” is about loss and recovery, in both the literal and figurative senses. Not to mention life’s many shades of gray, flim-flammery (both borderline and more classically criminal), loyalty and love at first sight. Thirteen year-old Theodore Decker and his mother, on a spur of the moment visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are among the victims of a terrorist bombing. Her death sets Theo off on a fourteen year journey that begins in the rubble of the explosion. A dying fellow victim urges him to salvage the Dutch master Fabritius’ portrait of a goldfinch, which becomes Theo’s talisman.

“The Goldfinch” is Dickensian in event and scope; the characters, ranging from the Park Avenue family that takes Theo in, to the inimitable Boris, who befriends Theo when he later relocates to Las Vegas, are wonderfully drawn. Equally fascinating are Tartt’s excursions into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, the profession of Hobie, Theo’s benefactor. To my surprise, these digressions, rather than detracting from the story, enrich the novel and the characters to such an extent that you wish Tartt had spent more time in this world.

But it’s Theo’s mother, beautifully drawn by the author, who may stay with you the longest. In spite of her death, she’s never really gone; her character is so vividly presented that you find yourself wondering, at the various turns Theo’s life takes, what she’d think of all this. He knows what he’s lost in her, which makes her absence even more heartbreaking.

The tale is a long one but quite rewarding, even if you feel, as I did, that the climax of “The Goldfinch” is more than a little outrageous. You’ll still enjoy the journey.

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A little book-related anecdote:

Begley_UpdikeWhen I attended law school in Boston, I lived on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay. It was then a rabbit warren of studio and one bedroom apartments occupied for the most part by students (It should not surprise you that since then the area has gone so co-op and condo it’s off the charts). My building was fairly standard issue with one exception—we had a laundromat in the basement so we drew a fair amount of traffic from the neighborhood.

One weekday afternoon there I sat with highlighter and law book in hand while my clothes cycled through washer and dryer. A man walked into the laundromat with a full basket of wash and I was immediately bombarded by a machine gun, rat-a-tat series of impressions: “He’s not a student” “OH MY GOD that’s John Updike!” “How can it be John Updike? He’s too short.”

I immediately put my detective mind into overdrive. He was older than average student age: I would have said late 30’s, though that in itself wasn’t unusual since a number of older, post-grad students, primarily Viet Nam vets, lived in the neighborhood. However, he was wearing a beautiful and quite expensive-looking tweed jacket (this was the height of the bell-bottom era), which would have indicated he actually worked for a living. The nose was unmistakable, but the mystery remained. Why would John Updike be doing laundry in a rundown student ghetto? I knew he lived in Massachusetts, but why would he be doing his wash on Marlborough Street?

I was still in my shy years, so I didn’t have the nerve to just go up to him with “Aren’t you…?” Part of me was afraid that if this was John Updike, I’d start gushing over “Couples” which remains one of my all-time favorite novels (and I think few works have better portrayed mid- and late-twentieth century America than the Rabbit books). Another part of me was just plain awed into silence at the thought of speaking with him. So I let the moment pass as he loaded up a couple of machines and departed. Having spun and dried, my laundry was done and I returned upstairs to my tiny studio apartment and hours of Evidence, Estates and Trusts and the Uniform Commercial Code. I never saw him again.

Flash forward to this past Saturday when I took Adam Begley’s new biography of Updike out of the library. Naturally I sought out the good parts first—how much of “Couples” was based on his own marriage and/or those of his neighbors in Ipswich, MA (answer: plenty). And then finally after all those years, I had my confirmation: the man in the laundromat had indeed been John Updike. I saw him when he was living in a small apartment on Beacon Street, right around the corner from me, after he had split from his first wife.

Long time coming, but I’m glad for the verification. And by the way, Begley’s book is fascinating.

Posted in Television

The Normal Heart

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Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, “The Normal Heart”

HBO’s highly touted “The Normal Heart” left me with mixed emotions. There were definitely some moments, but on the whole, I found it a bit lacking. What I mostly felt was regret—this should have been filmed 25 years ago, when it would have squarely caught the zeitgeist. Instead it was the subject of a long-running dispute between Barbra Streisand, who originally owned the film rights, and Larry Kramer, author of the play on which the film is based.

In terms of the issues it covers, “The Normal Heart” is like an overstuffed suitcase. Opening in 1981, when reports of a mysterious illness among gay men first surfaced, it definitively shows the ensuing failure of every level of government to either address this crisis or to help the afflicted. There’s also an unblinking depiction of the gay community’s response, which primarily consists of rallying around continued free sexual expression as a proclamation of pride, but with a growing sense that restraint might be wiser in the face of a disease that seems to be sexually transmitted. And then there’s Ned Weeks (aka Larry Kramer) and his relationship with Felix Turner, who ultimately develops full-blown AIDS. Not to mention Ned’s troubled relationship with his big shot attorney brother (Alfred Molina) who’s the emblem for what’s wrong with the straight world. Whew—that’s quite a menu for one movie.

One thing “The Normal Heart” drives home with alacrity is that polite guys don’t necessarily get the job done, a lesson which, incidentally, was also taught by the civil rights and feminist movements. While the film presents a fictionalized version of the founding and early years of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the conflicts depicted within the organization were quite real. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer seeking to rally the community and a self-described “pain in the ass,” asks the tough questions and demands a response in action, not words. In contrast there’s Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), who operates at a lower decibel level and as a result is elected GMHC’s President.

Ned yells a lot, but at times you want to scream along with him. There are a number of swipes at Ed Koch, then Mayor of New York, who did little if anything as more and more of the citizens he was sworn to serve became ill and died. One of the most arresting scenes in “The Normal Heart” is a confrontation with a Koch aide sent as the Mayor’s surrogate to a meeting with GMHC leaders who had been assured they’d be talking with Ed himself (in a parking garage, yet, which neatly shows how deeply closeted Koch really was). Denis O’Hare, a wonderful actor, once again plays the weasel—he was State Senator Dan Briggs in “Milk”—this time as the aide who threatens Mickey Marcus’s (Joe Mantello) job with the city when the GMHC crew calls out the Mayor.

But the most devastating moment in “The Normal Heart” is a visual one. At a memorial service, Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), the GMHC Executive Director, relates how he copes with the death of yet another GMHC client: he removes their card from his Rolodex and rubber bands it, storing it in a separate drawer in his desk. It’s his way of remembering. At the end of “The Normal Heart” we see that the pile of cards has multiplied into three and four rubber-banded stacks, and heartbreakingly, has been added to, one by one, with the cards of several of the leading characters.

The performances in “The Normal Heart” range from superb to amateurish. Being the author’s mouthpiece is always a difficult role, but it’s even harder when you’re actually playing the author himself, as Mark Ruffalo does here. His best work is in the confrontational scenes, whether with Felix, his colleagues at GMHC or the politicians he seeks out. Matt Bomer does a nice job with Felix, but Taylor Kitsch brings very little if anything to the table for Bruce Niles, who needs to be something of an antagonist for Ned. He’s just not there, and the film suffers for it. However, Joe Mantello is a superb Mickey Marcus, delivering with great passion his long mea culpa for advocating an “anything goes” lifestyle. But for me, the best performance is Jim Parsons’s as Tommy Boatwright (practice evidently made perfect—he played this role in the Broadway revival several years ago). Words can’t quite describe the expression on his face, a perfect combination of pain and compassion, as he reaches out to hug GMHC’s first lesbian volunteer. He alone makes “The Normal Heart” worth seeing.

On the other hand, there’s Julia Roberts.

Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician-ally of Ned Weeks during the crisis, is a tricky role: she’s Cassandra, she’s disabled (a childhood polio victim), she’s a woman, and as such has to be the counterpoint to bring the drama into its own. It takes great acting chops, which in my book Julia Roberts has never had. And playing the part takes control. The scene in which Brookner is denied grant money calls for incremental outrage. Roberts goes from zero to sixty in two seconds flat, which turns this into yet another scream fest. And there are times when the role requires plain old warmth, not just compassion, which she didn’t seem to be able to muster. I’m glad Julia Roberts was one of the film’s producers who provided the muscle to finally get it made, but the end result would have been far better if Brookner had been played by someone else. Cherry Jones would have been spectacular in the part.

I wish I had liked “The Normal Heart” more. But sincerity of intent can’t always compensate for a lack of quality in the execution.