Anti-Israel Opera to be Viewed Live by Hundreds of Thousands: Part Two
JNS.org – An open letter to the New York Metropolitan Opera general manager concerning his response to a Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) letter arguing for the rejection of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera.
The Metropolitan Opera
New York, NY 10023
Dear Mr. Gelb,
Thank you for your letter responding to CAMERA’s letter regarding the Met’s upcoming performances and Live in HD transmission of the Adams/Goodman “The Death of Klinghoffer” opera. In rejecting our case for at least canceling the HD transmission of this controversial and reprehensible production, you make several claims that we request you re-examine.
First, among your justifications for staging the opera is the assertion that composer John Adams is “the most important American composer of opera of the last 30 years.” This actually amounts to damning with faint praise since there is now, and historically has been, a dearth of important American composers of opera. Certainly, it would be unconvincing at best to rank Adams with the Italian and other European opera masters (nearly all of whom have been represented in recent Met productions), and even with acclaimed modern composers such as Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten, Shastikovich, and the American Samuel Barber.
More importantly, few critics or aficionados would support your claim that the opera in question is a “musical masterpiece,” even among those who might see nothing objectionable in the work’s perspective on the events it depicts. On the other hand, it’s much easier to find recognized experts who damn the opera:
In addition to Adams’s intellectual hypocrisy, there is his artistic hypocrisy. This involves the misuse of music and libretto in this opera to sway or form viewers’ opinions and has been exposed by Richard Taruskin, the eminent American musicologist, critic, and the author of the single-most ambitious project in musicological history (a six-volume, 3,000-page Oxford History of Western Music). Taruskin wrote in a New York Times article, “Music’s Dangers And The Case For Control” (Dec. 9, 2001):
“The libretto commits many notorious breaches of evenhandedness, but the greatest one is to be found in Mr. Adams’s music. In his interview, the composer repeats the oft drawn comparison between the operatic Leon Klinghoffer and the ‘sacrificial victim’ who is ‘at the heart of the Bach Passions.’ But his music, precisely insofar as it relies on Bach’s example, undermines the facile analogy… ‘timeless’ tones accompany virtually all the utterances of the choral Palestinians or the terrorists, beginning with the opening chorus.
“They underscore the words spoken by the fictitious terrorist Molqui: ‘We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals.’ Together with an exotically ‘Oriental’ obbligato bassoon, they accompany the fictitious terrorist Mamoud’s endearing reverie about his favorite love songs. They add resonance to the fictitious terrorist Omar’s impassioned yearnings for a martyr’s afterlife; and they also appear when the ship’s captain tries to mediate between the terrorists and the victims.
“They do not accompany the victims, except in the allegorical ‘Aria of the Falling Body,’ sung by the slain Klinghoffer’s remains as they are tossed overboard by the terrorists. Only after death does the familiar American middle-class Jew join the glamorously exotic Palestinians in mythic timelessness. Only as his body falls lifeless is his music exalted to a comparably romanticized spiritual dimension.
“Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of forbearance can be noble. Not to be able to distinguish the noble from the deplorable is morally obtuse. In the wake of Sept. 11,  we might want, finally, to get beyond sentimental complacency about art. Art is not blameless. Art can inflict harm. The Taliban know that. It’s about time we learned.”
Furthermore, a New York Times commentary in 2003 said, “In a review of the work’s New York premiere later in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Edward Rothstein, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, implicitly questioned the rectitude of the very idea that ‘the Palestinians and the Jews would be shown as symmetrical victims of each other’s hatreds.’ In a follow-up essay, Mr. Rothstein explicitly asserted that the depiction of the Jewish characters slighted their claim to an age-old mythic resonance comparable to that of the Palestinians, reducing them to petty triviality. ‘This ideological posing is morally tawdry,’ he argued.”
Mr. Gelb, you write, “John Adams has said that in composing The Death of Klinghoffer he tried to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in their victims. Tom Morris, the director of the Met’s new production, believes that the opera’s most important contribution is in providing an opportunity for the audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict and pattern of abhorrent violent acts.”
The opera’s search for the “humanity” of the murderers echoes the French saying that “to understand is to excuse,” but one reason terrorism is a crime under international law is because terrorists deny the humanity of their victims. And by not distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant (never mind that terrorists are by definition illegal combatants) they violate one of the original legal structures that led to modern Europe and Western civilization—the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. This ended the horrific slaughter of the 30 Years’ War, in which rampaging, ill-disciplined armies made no distinction between soldiers and civilians. The peace, a series of treaties, established rules of warfare and the obligations of nation states in this regard. In a fundamental way, terrorists, like those who murdered Klinghoffer, reject such civilized restrictions. That’s a functional rejection of the humanity Adams/Goodman pretend to believe the terrorists share with their victims.
A work of art based on this misconception cannot provide audiences an opportunity to wrestle with anything of substance. The phrases you use here, “seemingly endless conflict,” “almost unanswerable questions,” and “pattern of abhorrent, violent acts” apparently are meant to convey understanding and sympathy but they do neither. Really to understand Klinghoffer’s killers would be to recognize their anti-Semitism, their nihilism. Adams/Goodman’s romanticizing of their Palestinian terrorists does not help audiences wrestle with or understand the violent continuation of the Palestinian conflict with Israel and their attitude toward Jews. An opera highlighting conditions in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and Fatah administered West Bank and responsibility for them might begin to do so.
There’s been no wrestling by a Met production with questions of shared humanity between, for example, night-riding Klansmen and their black victims or Chinese leaders and soldiers and those massacred in Tiananmen Square. These would be obvious apologias and plainly polemical, not artistic. So too with “The Death of Klinghoffer.” You refer to the Met’s standing as a leading cultural institution. That status has been achieved and maintained over many years by strong artistic choices and performances. Choices like that in favor of “The Death of Klinghoffer” begin to erode the status you speak of. Reconsideration is in order.
As CAMERA has stated, as far as the Met is concerned, in order to minimize the harm to the Met’s reputation resulting from this opera, at least the HD transmission substitution should be made in the 2014-2015 schedule, quite possibly along the lines we have suggested. Again, the feasible, high-quality alternatives detailed in CAMERA’s first letter are: “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,” “The Rake’s Progress,” “Aida,” “La Traviata,” “Magic Flute,” and “Barber of Seville.” The easiest substitution would be switching the times of the two operas scheduled for Nov. 15 so that “Aida” trades places with “The Death of Klinghoffer,” thus providing for a genuine opera masterpiece in the HD transmission.
A plausible reason for scheduling this opera (but not noted in your letter) is that the huge controversy resulting from this production is almost certain to dramatically raise the visibility of this HD transmission during a difficult financial period for the Met. It is indeed sad for this opera lover to contemplate that this could be the case. One is reminded here of Faust selling his soul to the Devil in both famous opera versions of the legend.
Senior Research Analyst
CAMERA (Boston-based 65,000-member Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America)
Read Kaplan’s first letter to Met General Manager Peter Gelb here.