Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The 'Klinghoffer' affair: Metropolitan Opera decides only old, safe art is worthy of high-definition scheduling

John Adams, composer of "The Death of Klinghoffer"
Responding to a shakily grounded campaign of vilification against "The Death of Klinghoffer," the Metropolitan Opera has withdrawn the John Adams-Alice Goodman opera from its 2014 schedule of productions shared around the world in high-definition live screening.

The work is more than 20 years old, but is still capable of arousing passions you might think more appropriate to a deliberate new provocation by untried artists, instead of an operatic team conspicuously laureled and frequently produced, especially for "Nixon in China."

With the Met having caved in to assertions that widespread distribution of "The Death of Klinghoffer" would encourage anti-Semitism, the arts establishment has once again insulated itself from any association with controversy, no matter what its artistic stature.

The claims that "The Death of Klinghoffer" has to be a work of beauty and soul-stirring, thought-provoking entertainment have been rendered null and void by this decision. Apparently, topics of historical import must be safely dead within all of us to be fit for operatic treatment.

There is to some an inexcusable evenhandedness in the work's grappling with the tragedy of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the execution of a disabled Jewish passenger named Leon Klinghoffer. The opera in no way justifies or mitigates the brutality of this act. But it presents starkly the interplay of passions that still roil our world, a conflict of interests with articulated rationales on both sides.

The enemies of "The Death of Klinghoffer," however, apparently believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only side. You don't have to be against Israel's right to exist to deplore the sins of 1948 that made a Jewish state a reality in the Middle East. The new nation was no more established on uninhabited land than the United States was; displacement and marginalization were part of the agenda.

In the opera, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians (balanced, by the way, by a Chorus of Exiled Jews — both to beautiful music) speaks to this condition of exile and oppression, opening with this stanza: "My father's house was razed / In  nineteen forty-eight / When the Israelis passed / Over our street."

Later, after the chorus nostalgically describes the house, the anger rises: "Of that house, not a wall / In which a bird might nest / Was left to stand. Israel / Laid all to waste."

Strong words, wrapped in a growing torrent of orchestral and choral sound, ending with this stanza: "Let the supplanter look / Upon his work. Our faith / Will take the stones he broke / And break his teeth."

Apparently these harsh sentiments cannot be expressed, even in a work of art that takes a broad view of the suffering that all inhabitants of the contested region have known. The suffering of only some of them is allowed to be lamented. An open letter to Met general manager Peter Gelb as the crisis  over the HD simulcast was brewing implied that the opera's creators may be open to a charge of anti-Semitism by failing to title their work "The Murder of Klinghoffer." Such is the absurd kind of litmus test that tends to be applied in controversies like this.

I will not presume  to lecture Israel on the necessity of coming to terms with what happened in 1948 as a permanent Jewish homeland came into being, nor on actions felt justifiable since then to maintain its hegemony over territory whose legal definition has been repeatedly challenged. But there is no reason why these very pertinent questions about the destiny of two historical adversaries cannot be raised in a work of art, just as they are in the political world, the arena where they must ultimately be settled.

The Met has capitulated to a particularly vicious brand of philistinism in removing "The Death of Klinghoffer" from its HD simulcast schedule.