The politics of the Middle East – and New York -- are sweeping across New York's Metropolitan Opera House and they're threatening to make a muddle of some important and complicated music.
Seeking to add more contemporary opera in its repertoire, the Met's Peter Gelb put John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" on its production schedule for this fall. The opera deals with the tragic hijacking of the Achille Lauro ocean liner in 1985 by four Palestinian terrorists, who kill one passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, a New Yorker.
The opera, which premiered in Belgium in 1991, has been dogged by controversy since its New York opening later that year because, in part, of objections by Klinghoffer's daughters, who say the opera is sympathetic to the terrorists. Others have claimed it’s anti-Semitic because of the racist rantings of one of the murderous characters.
In an op-ed column in yesterday's Daily News, the Klinghoffers repeat their objections, saying of the opera: "Its rationalization of terrorism and false moral equivalencies between Palestinian and Jewish suffering provide no thoughtfulness or insight."
But the Klinghoffer sisters curiously stop short of calling for a boycott or a cancellation, noting they recognize the artistic right of the Met to present the opera by a critically-acclaimed composer.
In an effort to tamp down some of the attacks, Gelb this week cancelled plans for a Nov. 15th HD simulcast of the opera in movie theaters around the world, saying in a statement that the broadcast "would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
But Gelb's explanation rings disingenuous. In an interview with Michael Cooper of The New York Times, composer John Adams says of Gelb: "He said that he felt that by canceling the telecast, he could save the stage production."
In addition, Gelb has also agreed to – according to the Klinghoffers – "provide space in the program for a statement outlining our objections to this wholesale abuse of our father’s memory."
But rather than assuage critics’ concerns with his HD cancellation, Gelb has only inflamed them – with the help of the New York Post which flat out claimed the opera is "anti-Jewish" on its front page yesterday. The Post fans the flames today in an article that says Jewish leaders want the Met simply to cancel the production.
Next to the Klinghoffers’ column yesterday, the Daily News ran an editorial, expressing genuine confusion over Gelb’s move, saying he “did a half backflip into no-person’s land.”
I’d beg anyone to listen to a recording of the opera or watch the film version of it before weighing in on this fight. From my vantage point, “Klinghoffer” no more romanticizes those four Palestinian terrorists than Stephen Spielberg does in his depiction of the thugs who disrupted the 1972 Olympics in the film “Munich.”
As Adams tells The Times: “When Klinghoffer finally sings, he sings an aria of absolute indignation. He’s being taunted and abused by this bully that the passengers called ‘Rambo,’ and he fights back. I can’t imagine anybody not identifying with his words.”
It’s ironic that some Jewish activists are targeting Adams who has tried to talk with some of his critics -- while the Met regularly puts on operas by Richard Wagner, a renowned anti-Semite, and Richard Strauss, who was trying to appease the Nazis while he lived in Austria during World War II.
Meanwhile, Gelb has done a sloppy job dealing with a genuine controversy, acting like King Solomon when no one wants to cut this baby in half. Like most art, opera is meant to spark conversation, not stifle it. The Met is on a dangerous path to lowering the curtain on something worth seeing and hearing.