No one was trembling in their seats at the Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer on October 20. Taking no chances, the police presence outside the hall was considerable, and if you made light of it, the box office manager was quick to frown. “It’s for your own protection, sir.” But how can this Mayfly of a contretemps be seen as anything inflammatory? Every lens you view it through is skewed. A woman was introduced at the rally outside (protesters had been squeezed into the tiny strip park that separates Lincoln Center from Broadway) as a heroine for Israel. Through a bullhorn she shouted that “Peter Gelb, a Jew, has brought danger to all of us.” It would take the thinnest of skins and hottest of heads to remotely believe such a charge.
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.
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.
In order to be great, a musician or musical institution needs a defining trait or sense of purpose.[1. The L. A. Phil. Website clearly gets this. About their tour of which these were the concluding concerts, it states “Led by our Music Director, we took a typically audacious set of programs on the road. We played programs that said, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think is important.’”] But the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it seems to me, is currently a work in progress. Its leader, the immensely talented Gustavo Dudamel, has already (and almost automatically) placed a unique stamp on the orchestra’s repertory by introducing or elevating the status of hitherto underrepresented music by Latin American composers, much of it brilliantly attractive and original. But in its pair of concerts in New York, such repertory was absent.
There was a moment when American opera companies faced greater challenges both producing and selling contemporary work, but could still be relied upon to produce the 19th century classics with success onstage and at the box office. Maybe the training and experience of musicians onstage and in the pit has finally caught up with the calendar. Maybe a newer idiom is less of a reach than the older one and the cultural displacement and carnage of the two World Wars has finally separated us from traditions of bel canto. Perhaps as listeners we hold different expectations of singers in contemporary work than we do of singers in Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet. For whatever reason, the production of Nixon in China currently gracing the stage of the San Francisco Opera is the most stylistically coherent achievement of their summer season and is bringing in audiences. Much praise to all concerned.
The reviews of three concerts and a dance performance you will find on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, one in San Francisco and three in New York, represent only a small part of the month-long festival, organized by Carnegie Hall under Michael Tilson Thomas’ direction, but including many other events scattered about the city at venues including the the Whitney, the Henry Street Settlement, the New York Public Library, and (le) Poisson Rouge. (Click here for a full listing. It should be noted that Michael Clark, reviewed here by Louise Levathes, is very much a maverick, although not an American.) I especially regret I couldn’t attend more of it, but I can take some consolation in referring you to WQXR’s expansive coverage of most aspects of the festival, with articles, interviews, and snippets of performances.)
Once upon a time, not too long ago, listeners might have resisted accepting on credit the notion of a conductor performing new music charismatically. For many decades, full-house audiences (at those moments desperately wishing themselves sparse) tended to squirm patiently through modern works, waiting for ever more elusive harmony or so much as a symphonic phrase, the experience more to be withstood than understood. Dodecaphonic compositions, in particular, constituted toll-booths on the musical freeway: to be bought off as taxation, passed-through and, if lucky, forgotten. Certainly not to be loved.
March 7, 2011 marked a brave direction for Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope Festival with an evening of music exclusively by composers who are (gasp!) still alive. This concert, which featured the music of Tyondai Braxton along with works from John Adams, Caleb Burhans, and Louis Andriessen was an important inclusion in this exciting and eclectic festival. Tully Scope would reinforce the importance of programming living composers two nights later with Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider’s even more daring presentation of works by living composers including the New York premiere of Jacobsen’s “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged” and the World Premiere of Philip Glass’ “Suite for String Quartet from Bent.”