There’s always been a strain of intolerant yahooism running through segments of the modern conservative movement, an ignorance and suspicion of the fine arts in all their forms. It’s bad enough when it comes from the populist, talk-radio side of the right wing; it’s worse when it comes from the allegedly more sophisticated side of the movement. But so it has.
Tonight in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera will stage the John Adams-Alice Goodman opera The Death of Klinghoffer, first performed back in 1991 in Brussels under tight security for fear of Muslim backlash (this was a decade before 9/11, remember) and widely produced elsewhere since. This evening, as the audiences file into Lincoln Center, there will also be tight security — but this time the protests come largely from the other side.
The wheelchair protest is planned, the ex-governor continues to speak of his disgust, and those attending the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production Monday will find a first in their programs: A letter denouncing what they’re about to see. This is the swirl of controversy surrounding the Met’s premiere of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the John Adams opera that is based on the brutal murder in 1985 of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish tourist shot by Palestinian terrorists and pushed into the sea from the deck of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.
The controversy, which has sparked protests at Lincoln Center, a letter-writing campaign and the cancellation of the Met’s broadcasts of the opera, seems to have left everybody involved unhappy. “Ignorance is always frustrating,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, complaining this week about the critics, who he believes have been too aggressive in their attempts to block the production.
“It’s unfortunate and it’s wrong,” former New York governor George Pataki said of the Met’s decision to program “The Death of Klinghoffer.” “Just the title says it all. Klinghoffer didn’t die. He was murdered.” And Adams said that the Met’s decision to cancel the movie theater simulcasts and radio broadcasts of “Klinghoffer” was “radical” and “damaging in every way.”
The New York Times noted this morning:
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, who said that he had received threats related to the opera and that some cast members had been harassed online, addressed the performers and musicians at Friday’s final dress rehearsal to tell them about enhanced security measures. “We just want to take every precaution so that everybody is safe and secure on Monday,” he said.
Although the opera, and the Met’s decision to stage it, is being attacked by a number of religious and political figures, both are being praised by some artistic figures. “Klinghoffer” has been performed earlier in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Juilliard School.
“It is not only permissible for the Met to do this piece — it’s required for the Met to do the piece,” Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, said in an interview. “It is a powerful and important opera. It tackles an issue that, as we are seeing now, is radioactive in our culture. And precisely because of its radioactivity, that’s why it needs to be tackled.”
At issue is not the quality of the work, but the perception that by depicting the murder of a wheelchair-bound American Jew on board an Italian cruise ship by a group of Palestinian terrorists — and by giving the terrorists their say — the opera is somehow endorsing both murder and Jew hatred. It’s like arguing that because Shakespeare gives Iago many of the best lines in Othello — and because Verdi gives the villain the most memorable aria in his operatic version, Otello — Shakespeare and Verdi are personally endorsing blasphemy. Similarly, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, we first meet the lecherous Don in the act of raping Donna Anna, and later he gets dragged down to Hell completely unrepentant; this does not mean that Mozart and da Ponte are celebrating rape.
The problem lies with the opera’s historical-political subject matter. Those who know next to nothing about opera seem to think this is proof of a political argument, forgetting that opera is often about real-life political events, sometimes disguised for censorship reasons (Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera) and sometimes not (Verdi’s Don Carlos, based on the historical play by Schiller). Further, Klinghoffer is not even the first politically themed opera by its creative team — that honor went to Nixon in China, which discomfited its leftist critics with a sympathetic portrayal of the title character, old Tricky Dick himself.