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The Problem With the Klinghoffer Opera

In an attempt to split the difference with its critics, the Metropolitan Opera announced today that it would go ahead with its plans to put on a production of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer but would not include the piece in its list of live simulcasts that can be watched in movie theaters around the world. Though sticking to his belief that the opera is not anti-Semitic, Met general manager Peter Gelb, did appear to be heeding the warnings of the Anti-Defamation League that the broadcast of Klinghoffer around the globe at a time of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, Africa and Asia would be a mistake.

Predictably, neither side in this dispute is happy. The ADL and the family of Leon Klinghoffer, whose murder by Palestinian terrorists is depicted in the opera, are upset about Gelb’s determination to stage the piece in spite of protests. Meanwhile composer John Adams defended his opera and told the New York Times that he believes any effort to limit its reach not only raises issues about artistic freedom but also promotes intolerance.

Adams’ position is absurd but he is right to think his anger about Gelb’s move will resonate in the artistic community. As with any issue involving critics of politicized art, those who are offended by the opera invariably are portrayed as small-minded or wishing to silence dissident voices. Defenders of Klinghoffer will claim, not without some justice, that many staples of the classic operatic repertory were once politically controversial and subjected to censorship. But comparisons with the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, to take just one prominent example, which were often rightly seen as subverting repressive monarchies or promoting the cause of Italian freedom, and Adams’ excursion into the Middle East conflict, are not apt. The libretto of “Klinghoffer” rationalizes terrorism, denigrates Jews and treats the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the Holocaust. Whether or not one accepts the notion that Adams’ creation is a musical masterpiece, as the Met insists, the point of the piece is one that is not merely offensive. It is, in its own way, a part of the global campaign of delegitimization of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. As such, the decision of one of the world’s leading arts organizations as well as one of the great cultural institutions of the city with the world’ largest Jewish populations, to produce this atrocity, even if won’t be shown around the world, is deeply troubling.

The problem with Klinghoffer is not, as some of its defenders have always claimed, that it humanizes the Palestinians. But by using the story of the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro as the setting for its attempt to juxtapose the Jews and the Palestinians, it creates a false moral equivalence thought ought to offend all decent persons, especially in the city where the 9/11 attacks occurred less than 13 years ago.

For those who don’t remember, the Achille Lauro incident was one of the most shocking acts of international terrorism. During a cruise from Alexandria, Egypt to Ashdod, Israel in 1985, the ship was taken over by terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Front, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. Eventually, the hijackers traded the ship and its passengers for promises of safe conduct from the Egyptian government. But before they left it, the Palestinians murdered one of the many American passengers; a wheelchair-bound elderly Jew named Leon Klinghoffer, and then threw his body into the sea.

To say that art should challenge its audiences to rethink their positions on issues or values is one thing. But to rationalize terrorism and the murder of a helpless old man simply because he was a Jew and spoke up against his tormentors does more than push the envelope of conventional tastes. It treats the indefensible as arguable. It portrays actions which are, in any civilized society, considered immoral and base and treats them as merely a question of one’s point of view. As such, “Klinghoffer” must be considered as not merely offensive but morally corrupt.

Given its contemptible premise, many people who know little of the cultural world in our day, may find it hard to understand how Klinghoffer could have been initially produced only a few years after the events it depicts took place in 1991 and become in the last quarter century a staple of the international operatic repertory, at least as far as contemporary opera is concerned. But such offensive views are mainstream opinion in the world of high art these days where productions of classics are often distorted to transform them from their religious and sentimental origins into parables for Marxist or other left-wing ideologies. Indeed, even operas which are inherently sympathetic to the Jews, like Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, have been turned into pro-Palestinian parables (though, it must be admitted that the Met’s 1998 Samson is actually quite sympathetic to the Jews). In such an artistic milieu, Klinghoffer is considered no more controversial than Verdi’s Rigoletto.

That the Met, which has a large Jewish fan base, should go down this contemptible road with Klinghoffer is a testament to Gelb’s determination to transform the venerable opera house into a laboratory for contemporary theater. Gelb has offended many, if not most of his subscribers with awful and ugly modernist productions in recent years and become the butt of almost constant attacks from disgruntled New York opera fans. But he has, to date, survived these disasters and, with a contract that runs into the next decade, seems to think that he can do, as he likes. But the Klinghoffer controversy comes at a particularly bad time for him.

The Met is currently negotiating with its unions about new contracts and Gelb has decided to try cut back on salaries and benefits for opera house workers as well as the chorus and orchestra. The conflict has been embittered by Gelb’s arrogance and profligate spending on his pet productions as well as the fact that he pulls down, as the New York Times reported yesterday, a whopping $1.8 million in salary, a staggering amount even an arts institution that is hurting financially. While it is always difficult to predict the course of labor negotiations, a strike that would postpone the opening of the Met this September or even the cancellation of the entire 2014-15 season a very real possibility. If so, the planned October-November run of Klinghoffer may never happen.

But strike or no strike, the decision to stage Klinghoffer taints the reputations of both Gelb and the Met. If the labor dispute results in a postponement of the Klinghoffer performances, the Met board should seize the opportunity to junk the production entirely. Indeed, now that Gelb has already admitted that the opera may well fan the flames of anti-Semitism if broadcast abroad, the Met should not do so at home either. If they don’t rethink their misguided plan, one of New York’s most beloved arts organizations will come under increasing and justified criticism for legitimizing terror and feeding anti-Semitism. It would be a fitting punishment if, along with all of his other problems, Gelb pays for this monumental error in judgment with his job.


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