As I write this, the first of nine performances of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer is wrapping up at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. You’ve probably seen news reports of ongoing activism against this production, renewing old allegations that Alice Goodman‘s libretto, based on the true story of a 1985 Achille Lauro terrorist hostage crisis and murder of an American Jew, is slanted against Israel and romanticizes terrorism. The rhetoric has been ramping up for months, particularly in the weeks since the Met opener in September, which was met by a large and well-publicized protest rally.
Even before that date, Met head Peter Gelb had announced a compromise with the Anti-Defamation League, continuing with the production, but removing it from the current season of worldwide opera broadcasts, citing concern that growing anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere might be fueled by the opera’s local availability. Abe Foxman, the head of the ADL, has also released a public statement opining that the opera is not anti-Semitic. These efforts to find a reasonable solution to what Forbes calls a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” have been met with consternation on both sides — Foxman is accused of being soft on anti-Semitism, and Gelb has been dubbed a wimp for cancelling the broadcasts. It’s clearly a no-win situation. (The Forbes article is one of the best I’ve found for astute details and background.)
The work has been controversial since its debut in 1991, leaving it widely discussed, publicly maligned and dismissed by its opponents, yet rarely performed — and therefore seen by very few of the people railing against it, including Klinghoffer’s daughters. But at productions in recent years, protest has been minimal. The activists are clearly taking particular advantage of the Met’s visibility, as the issues certainly haven’t become less volatile in the intervening years, and performances of late have been more likely to spark interfaith dialogue than rage. It is unsupportable that an opera is only controversial when presented by the largest, most prestigious houses.
I attended and reviewed Long Beach Opera‘s production earlier this year, and didn’t see a single picketer. Attendees were plentiful, and comments both during the pre-show discussion and after the evening’s activities seemed far more driven by open-minded curiosity and love of opera than vitriol. It’s not that the conflict wasn’t prevalent — those I spoke with were fully aware of the controversy. The LBO production, staged in 2011 for Opera Theatre St. Louis by director James Robinson, was clearly driven by an effort to look at a wide variety of viewpoints: not just Jewish and Palestinian, but those of various ethnicities represented by the cruise liner’s diverse collection of passengers. The actions taken by the terrorists were horrific, and this exploration of the characters’ motives did not justify or romanticize their crimes. It simply looked at them.
While the companies presenting this work have historically taken pains to do so with consciousness and sensitivity, the opposition does not appear to approach the conflict with the same respect and civility, or even the requisite research: public and private statements, even picket signs, have been peppered with errors of fact, showing a surprising lack of commitment to known details, much less informed hindsight. Several aspects of today’s protest (notably the “100 Wheelchair March”) simply smack of the publicity stunt. While some speeches and articles have shown careful thought, too much of the hubbub of recent days, online and IRL, has been reckless rather than constructive.
Begging the tough question
So here’s the hard part: When is a rally, rightly protected in this country as a form of expression, simply another form of censorship?
What is startling about the current protests is the blind single-mindedness of those calling for cancellation. One must wonder, with some irony: wouldn’t some of these same protesters scream just as loudly if the New York Public Library scheduled a book burning event? They’re asking for the same block to expression, with eerie similarity — including a call for the opera’s sets to be “burned to the ground“.
Artistic exploration of a complex issue does not constitute hate speech. The onstage portrayal of hate-filled characters as human beings does not necessarily glorify either their viewpoint or their actions. Neither does the flawed execution of a protest make it invalid. The issues here, and the emotions they provoke, are just that complicated, and neither side is served by hard-line hyperbole.
While this post is certainly long on opinion, please attempt to think of it as an exercise in devil’s advocacy. I’m still working through this extremely complex issue myself, and welcome polite discussion that offers alternative views as counterpoint. What I firmly believe is this: controversy and disagreement alone cannot be allowed to halt access to art, and The Met deserves kudos for continuing their production of this powerful work, in spite of the uproar. Art cannot be forced to take only one side or another in order to be heard. It is the mirror that allows us to examine ourselves beyond our own perceptions and beliefs. If we insist that it be allowed to show us only what we think we already know, then we rob both it and ourselves of the opportunity to grow; we perpetuate our own mistakes as well as those of others; and we become, in our rigidity, just as twisted as we believe our enemies to be.
Operavore, “The Depth of Klinghoffer: What Does the Controversy Say About Freedom of Expression?” 10/17/14
New York Times, “Protests and Politics Greet ‘Klinghoffer’ at Met” 10/19/14
Wall Street Journal, “John Adams, ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Composer, Prepares for Controversial Metropolitan Opera Production” 10/19/14
New York Daily News, “Bill de Blasio takes swipe at Giuliani, defends Met Opera’s production of ‘Death of Klinghoffer” 10/20/14
New York Times, “Protester Briefly Interrupts ‘Klinghoffer’ at Met Opera House” 10/20/14