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Click here for Lloyd Schwartz’s commentary.
In the affair over John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, the participants have succeeded in making themselves look very bad indeed, above all Abe Foxman of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and whatever kindred organizations which have not been specified in the reports—with Peter Gelb straggling obsequiously behind them. It is appalling that a special interest group can dictate what a major arts institution can present to the public, and that the chief officer of the institution should accept it so easily. Peter Gelb stated that the cancellation of the HD transmission was necessary to save the production itself at the Metropolitan Opera—which implies that the revered old house operates under the external control of groups like the ADL, which likes to consort with governments on a quasi-equal footing, but which exercises no legal power equivalent to that of a national government, certainly not that of the United States or Israel. We must ask whether the ADL’s censorship of the Metropolitan Opera’s work resembles more something like the Motion Picture Production Code or the repressive measures of a Fascist government, which represses art it considers politically unsuitable? The Jewish groups which have suppressed the broadcast have not only made themselves look bad, but they have stupidly denied themselves an opportunity to further their cause in an intelligent, constructive way. An international broadcast of The Death of Klinghoffer, accompanied by an honest discussion by a range of qualified authorities (in place of the usual froth the Met offers in their HD transmissions), could only be a healthy event—for American and Israeli Jews as well as Palestinians. Americans and the world owe a vast debt of gratitude to American Jews for their role in promoting free discussion and liberal tolerance of pluralistic opinion. Now the ADL assumes the role of determining what may or may not be presented by a major opera house—the role of censor—not to mention the doctrinaire positions of publications like Commentary, which published a truly insane argument in favor of the opera’s suppression by staff columnist Jonathan S. Tobin.
We should also note that the ADL’s statement following Gelb’s submission included some interesting language, recalling the old theme according to which opposition to the State of Israel—or criticism or its policies is equivalent to anti-Semitism. “ADL noted that while the opera itself is not anti-Semitic, there is a concern the opera could be used in foreign countries as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism.” This does not make the two undesirable sentiments identical or equivalent, but it presents them as a parallel duality.
I am not an unreserved admirer of John Adams, and certainly not at all of Peter Gelb and his HD projections in any way, which, in my opinion, do the experience of opera a huge disservice. The Met’s current financial difficulties make it clear how it has drained its own constituency. Whatever Adams’ aims in writing Klinghoffer may be and whatever its intrinsic quality as an opera, it is valid as an object of discussion about real problems in the world in 1991, when the work was premiered, and today. We should consider it in the light of the late twentieth century composer’s search for new themes and new approaches to the subject-matter of opera—a formal quest as much as a political one, which in itself is well ensconced in the tradition of opera. In one way, John Adams should be delighted that Klinghoffer has hit home like this. Attempts at suppression are as strong a compliment as plagiarism. On the other, he is rightly incensed that his opera is being deprived of its HD presentation, a medium, which, as I have mentioned, if handled properly, could provide his 1991 opera with a relatively new platform, one which could bring the discussion he initially sought to arouse, to a worldwide audience. Many people involved in this mind-numbing affair, either as actors or commentators, assume or conclude that the HD broadcast is equally or more important than the performance at the Met. This is how the opera and the discussion will reach a broad public. It is curious that the HD projections, which, I believe, betray the aesthetics of the Met’s culinary productions, are for once essential. By contrast, is an imposed silence an effective way to discourage antisemitism?
We all know the Met as the home of “culinary” opera, to use Bert Brecht’s phrase. People go to the Met to see lavish productions and to hear the most famous singers—some well past their prime—but not necessarily for intellectual rewards. (Gelb has to some extent redeemed this with productions like Patrice Chéreau’s of Janácek’s House of the Dead, which he imported from the Holland Festival and La Scala, but in general he has brought in splashy productions for their own sake.) Today other houses do a far more effective job of making opera vital and interesting to audiences by focusing on their content on ethical and political issues—for example Francesca Zambello’s exemplary work at Glimmerglass, which includes discussions by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the political and moral meaning of operas. In the case of Klinghoffer, the Met might have created an opportunity to follow Zambello’s example, but Gelb’s craven Gehorsamkeit to sectarian groups has deprived his organization of that distinction.
It is all the more depressing to read this news in the context of Manuela Hoelterhoff’s spineless interview with Gelb in Bloomberg about his faltering negotiations with the Met unions, in which she tries to put a brave face to his admission of defeat. (There was little real information in what he said, simply assertions—or raw “talking points,” let’s say.)
Hoelterhoff: But let’s move on. Attendance could really be better.
Gelb: We’ve embarked on a strategy to make the Met more accessible, including last season’s abridged “Magic Flute,” for families.
The audience is shrinking. I fault our times and short-form entertainment. The days of Pavarotti standing center stage and selling out are gone. Then opera still had a foothold in popular culture. It’s a niche now.
One could take this as a despicable, self-serving effort to shunt responsibility away from himself, but it is also dead wrong. Opera never had much of a foothold in popular culture. By declaring opera a niche, Gelb both marginalizes and trivializes a great art form, which is still very much alive—even for occasional visitors of live productions. And since when does Luciano Pavarotti’s exciting but often brutally tasteless singing stand for opera, popular or elitist? In this single, self-satisfied statement, Peter Gelb has confessed that he is not fit to manage any opera house, much less the Met. Companies like Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Glimmerglass, The Opera Theater of St. Louis, and the Hubbard Hall Opera Theater of Cambridge, New York are doing exciting work in bringing opera to life for their audiences and in growing these audiences. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the old dinosaur, the Met, can’t keep up. In any case, it is clear that other people can do the job better than Peter Gelb, both in terms of artistic integrity and making a success of the venture. It’s time for him to go. In fact it’s long overdue.
More on Klinghoffer:
Alex Ross has done an excellent job of putting the Klinghoffer affair in context in his recent “The Met’s Klinghoffer Problem” in the New Yorker.
The Forward has published a negative opinion by arts and culture editor Adam Langer. See also Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s article on the controversy surrounding the opera, which quotes Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, who works as vice president for philanthropy at the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He said: “Here was a wanton murder of a helpless human being. Trying to portray both sides and show they’re not monsters, but human beings who did foul, awful things to advance their cause, shows that it was a horrific event. If by producing this those questions are raised again, is that a bad thing? Discussions need to be had.[…] He says that he’s eager to see it again. “I want to be provoked again, and see what my reactions are now, 11 years after I saw it last time. .[…] Great art has always raised questions,” says Bretton-Granatoor. “Art is not meant to soothe, it’s meant to provoke.”
Click here for Lloyd Schwartz’s commentary.