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.”


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.


6 thoughts on “No Strength of Conviction

  1. The Times editorial was great! What’s that about there’s no such thing as bad publicity? The DVD of “Klinghoffer” is selling out on Amazon (I put my order in yesterday). And there’s a petition to restore “Klinghoffer” to the HD telcast schedule you can access through the Standing Room tab on the Met Opera Guild Website. A fat lot of good it will probably do, but I signed anyway.

    Geoff, I share your concern as to whether there will even be a Met season. I understand the Met Board has a full page ad in today’s Times airing its position vis a vis the unions, so here’s another battle line drawn. I suspect this will not end well.

  2. When this issue recently came to my attention, I remained neutral. Before taking a stand, I wanted to explore what the fuss was all about. I have been an opera lover since age 10 and go to as much opera as possible in New York and in Europe. I also love John Adams’s music. When I first heard his music years ago, I said to myself, “finally we have a true great American composer again,” (sorry Philip Glass and Steve Reich don’t quite do it for me like Adams does) and yes of course there is the astounding Arvo Paert (but not American).
    But to get to the point, having not seen “Klinghoffer” (Doctor Atomic is a masterpiece; Nixon In China quite good), I wanted to listen and see as much as I could of this opera on the internet (no complete version on the internet; but the film version from Netflix in on the way to me). I have seen/heard some excerpts now and a very interesting clip on panel discussions held in St Louis before they gave their production.
    My final verdict on whether the opera is anti-semitic or anti-zionist will have to wait. From what I have read and seen, it “seems” to me that it is a balanced account of some very complex and divisive issues that has been haunting us for some time. Astounding that the people who have led the campaign to ban this opera have not seen it. Foxman, who admitted that he never saw the opera and concedes it is not anti-semitic, was the one who negotiated the compromise with Gelb.
    Gelb has made some horrible artistic decisions during his brief tenure. The “Ring” was for the most part a very expensive mistake and there were a number of other productions, i.e. the “Las Vegas” Rigoletto (the only opera I have ever walked out on despite my sweetheart Diana Daumrau being in the cast). But this seems to be his greatest blunder.
    I already have tickets for “Klinghoffer” on my subscription for November. But none of us may even get a chance to see this opera, since the entire Met Season may not happen because of labor issues.
    But more importantly, those who have raised the red flag over bigotry and hatred, having reached their verdict before weighing the evidence, have displayed obvious intolerance and ignorance.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, geoff. I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the merits of Adams’ work. “Doctor Atomic” haunted me for days.

      And unfortunately your prediction that all this discussion may turn out to be moot stands a good chance of becoming true. Which would be a shame indeed.

      BTW, I hope you stayed long enough at “Rigoletto” to hear Damrau’s “Caro nome.” Hers was the best performance of this aria I’ve ever heard. PS: I loved the production!

      1. Good editorial today in the NYT re: “Klinghoffer”. I am sure The Jewish Week will have a piece next week.
        Yes, of course Damrau’s rendition of “Caro nome” was superb (actually I heard Netrebko in the role of Gilda some years ago, and it was great too). But I hate to disagree with you about this Vegas production of Rigoletto.
        Nonetheless the “Klinghoffer” controversy is of much greater concern. Hope there is a season and I can see it.

  3. I so wholeheartedly agree with your post. Opera, art, goodness, it’s supposed to be challenging and make people think. If leading Opera Houses succumb to pressure groups what hope is there? How worrying if we are setting off down the road of heavy-handed censorship of the arts once again.

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