The most recent piece of bad news in the opera world is that the Metropolitan Opera has succumbed to pressure from several Jewish organizations and cancelled the international Live in HD telecast and radio broadcast of its new production of John Adams’s complex and controversial 1991 opera/oratorio The Death of Klinghoffer—which is about the Palestinian terrorist attack on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. And because Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and stage director Peter Sellars had the chutzpah to dramatize the points of view of the terrorists as well as the victims, some people, including Leon Klinghoffer’s two daughters, felt the opera was anti-Semitic. (A satirical family scene just before the cruise was cut after the first American performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement that, although it didn’t find Klinghoffer itself anti-Semitic, “there is a concern the opera could be used in foreign countries to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism.”
The Met isn’t the first arts organization to cave in to pressure about Klinghoffer. After the 9/11 attack, the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled its scheduled performances of the choruses from Klinghoffer, in which both Jewish and Palestinian exiles voice their particular griefs and grievances (the best music in the opera and surely inspired by “Va pensiero,” Verdi’s great chorus of Jewish exiles in Nabucco), reminding us what some of us would prefer to forget, that we’re all human, even terrorists, and sometimes all too human. Are people afraid to face the fact that even the most monstrous human actions are still perpetrated by human beings, and that it’s one of the roles of a work of art to remind us that people are capable of terrible acts?
I still haven’t forgiven the BSO for canceling what might have been one of its most extraordinary concerts—a 1982 performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, staged by Peter Sellars and narrated by Vanessa Redgrave—because some powerful donors objected to Redgrave’s pro-Palestinian politics. No one could accuse Oedipus Rex of being anti-Semitic. And as the composer points out in a New York Times article about the cancellation of the Klinghoffer telecast (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/arts/music/klinghoffer-composer-responds-to-mets-decision.html?rref=arts&module=Ribbon&version=context®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Arts&pgtype=Blogs ), the director of the Anti-Defamation League has not seen the opera.
Some people question the Met’s original decision to telecast Klinghoffer, that it should have anticipated this backlash. Some have expressed worry for the owners of the many small theaters that screen the Met telecasts, who could become the indirect victims of demonstrators, incurring extra security and possible legal complications. And of course there’s worry about the Met itself and its precarious financial footing and strained relationship with labor unions. It doesn’t want to alienate its supporters.
Perhaps Gelb’s most important legacy is his commitment to important modern works. Klinghoffer is an ambitious, serious work, with some beautiful music, and, in my opinion, serious flaws. I was eager to see a new production without having to go to New York. Broadcasting and telecasting this work internationally offers a unique opportunity to open up a discussion about the nature of art and its relation to world events. Imagine doing that during the intermission instead of the usual interviews and behind the scenes chit-chat? Adams reports, in his Times interview, that Gelb told him that “unimaginable pressure” had been applied. Adams’s own seems the most telling: “The cancellation of the international telecast is a deeply regrettable decision and goes far beyond issues of ‘artistic freedom,’ and ends in promoting the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing.”