I am not the most likely person to become too emotionally involved in the whole brouhaha that is swirling around the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to mount a production this fall of John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer, and for several reasons. For one thing, I am not a huge fan of opera. (I have been to the Met…exactly once. Joan and I received tickets to see The Magic Flute at the Met as a first anniversary present from someone who shouldn’t have spent that much on us, and I’ve seen many more operas in other, less exclusive venues. But, although I am a great lover of music, and particularly classical music, I have somehow never developed a deep love for opera.) Nor am I one who feels that any great good can come, almost ever, from censoring artists or for banning the production of artistic exhibitions or performances that are edgy or which push their audiences beyond the natural limits of their comfort zones. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do, after all? Isn’t the whole point of the artistic enterprise to create a context in which the public can be goaded into reconsidering what they’ve always supposed to be well-accepted truths and attitudes, in which people are challenged to ask themselves if the way they’ve always understood things might not well be far more subjective than they previously thought…and thus open to discussion and re-evaluation in light of the insight provided by the artist’s work? Art without edge, after all, is mere entertainment.
My lack of enthusiasm for the operatic enterprise—and I should say from the outset that I formally exclude all of Mozart’s operas, and particularly Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro, from that general characterization of my musical tastes—and my general disinclination to approve of censoring any artist’s work merely because it is out of sync with accepted attitudes or tastes should, therefore, leave me uninterested in caring one way or the other whether the Met does or does not proceed with its plans to include John Adam’s opera in its fall schedule. Yet, oddly, that is not how I feel at all.
The opera is about Leon Klinghoffer, the poor man murdered by Palestinian terrorists on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in October, 1985. The story itself you probably all remember at least in its broadest outlines. Terrorists associated with the Palestine Liberation Front, an organization associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, hijacked a cruise ship in the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt and headed to the port of Tartus in Syria, where they intended to trade the hostages onboard for terrorists being held by Israel. When the Syrians refused to allow them to enter the harbor, the terrorists responded by murdering Leon Klinghoffer, a wheel-chair bound American citizen. Then, after the crew was forced to dump him overboard while still strapped into his wheelchair, the ship then set sail for Port Said in Egypt where the hijackers finally agreed to leave the ship in exchange for passage to Tunisia on an Egyptian airplane. That was duly arranged, but the plane was later intercepted by American fighter aircraft and forced to land in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested and eventually charged with murder.
Many of us remember those dark days in October all too well. But not all who remember it are horrified by it; some appear to be fascinated by it…and put off neither by the terrorists’ savagery or their disrespect for human life. In 1991, John Adams, working with librettist Alice Goodman, created an opera they called The Death of Klinghoffer. It opened at the Met and received reasonably good reviews. That, in and of itself, is remarkable to me, not because I have an opinion one way or the other about the quality of the music, but because the book itself portrays the murderers of poor Klinghoffer not as pirates or thugs, but as noble freedom fighters, as “men of ideals.” Eventually, the season ended and that, more or less, would have been that, until the Met announced earlier this year not only that it was going to revive the opera in New York, but that it planned to offer it as a theater-based simulcast in over 2000 locations in sixty-six different countries around the world. The protests began. The Met caved in a little and cancelled the simulcast. But the production of the opera itself was not only not cancelled and will no doubt enjoy the enormous amount of free publicity that the whole controversy has generated.
In explaining the cancellation of the simulcast but not the actual production, the general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, wrote that he remains “convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” but that he has nevertheless become “convinced that there is a genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.” Let’s think about that statement. If the opera isn’t anti-Semitic, then how could it provoke an anti-Semitic response? But if broadcasting it in thousands and thousands of venues around the world feels inappropriate given the rising tide of anti-Semitism, then what could it possibly mean to say that the opera itself is free of the taint of anti-Semitism?
Perhaps Peter Gelb meant that the opera is not really anti-Semitic, but could possibly be taken that way by naïve listeners unused to the subtly of dramatic poetry set to music. That sounds reasonable…but the libretto doesn’t seem subtle to me at all, but starkly and vividly anti-Semitic…and in a visceral way that more or less uses the language of Nazi racism to tar the Jewish people as a nation of thieves, liars, and extortionists: “Wherever poor men are gathered,” the libretto reads, “they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.” Very nice! Is it relevant that the librettist was once a Jew from Minnesota, but later not only chose to become a Christian but was actually ordained as an Anglican priest? (She is currently the rector of a group of parishes in Cambridgeshire, England.) I’d like to think not, but part of me cannot keep from wondering where in her theological training Alice Goodman learned to think of her own people in terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in Nazi Germany. Certainly (I hope), not at our parents’ feet or her grandparents’. And presumably also not at Boston University, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. Yet the language crosses the line from sharp and edgy to truly defamatory…and in a way that should make anyone familiar with Jewish history, even someone comfortable personally abandoning Jewishness, extremely ill at ease.
And so we end up on the horns of an interesting dilemma. Art is supposed to raise hackles, to challenge, to unnerve. But how far exactly do we take that thought? Should plays that mock black people or denigrate women be allowed to be produced merely because they challenge people to reconsider their values? What about artistry that insults gay people…or, for that matter, any recognizable group within society—should anyone be able to justify any sort hostile, bigoted speech by justifying it to the world as artistic expression? The First Amendment could not be clearer about the rights of citizens to speak freely, and that right must, for it to mean anything at all, include unpopular—including extremely unpopular—ideas or opinions. Yet even our most liberal jurists and passionate defenders of the First Amendment do not question the reasonability of legislation that makes defamatory speech illegal. Constitutional lawyers, I’m sure, have their own sense of how this all works. But what should the rest of us think, we average citizens who are left by all of this unsure whether our best interests lie in permitting the occasional vile libretto to surface even in as posh a venue as the Metropolitan Opera so that the right we all enjoy to speak out freely is left intact…or if we have a sacred obligation to speak out forcefully against the abuse of the concept of free speech to permit the promulgation of depraved, repulsive, and defamatory language in as public a setting as the Met. And what of the notion that the murder of Leon Klinghoffer was a political statement that can be justified as such, and thus not a criminal act at all—should that kind of perverse reasoning be given a pass because it is presented to the public as art?
Leon Klinghoffer was not murdered because he was elderly or handicapped. Nor was he murdered because he was an American citizen, or not solely for that reason. He was murdered al kiddush ha-sheim as a Jew…and if his murder can be depicted as legitimate, then so can Treblinka. Indeed, if there is a profound difference between the death of Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro and the murder of any analogous elderly, crippled Jewish man in any one of the camps or in some random execution ditch, I fail to see it. And that is why, despite my willingness to excuse a lot for the sake of art and my general lack of interest in opera, I find myself very engaged by the decision of the Met to proceed with the production this fall.
I suppose one could argue that, given the cancellation of the simulcast, this is a tempest in a teapot. How many people are going to see the production at the Met anyway…and, of them, how many will buy into its repulsive premise? I suppose there must be some comfort in the obvious answers to those questions, but I think the issue goes deeper than the question of how many tickets will be sold and to whom. For me, the decision of the Metropolitan Opera not to care that the libretto of an opera they are about to produce is so deeply anti-Semitic that it dares to make a facile, grotesque comparison (and I read now from the graffiti on the backdrop against which the action unfolds) between Warsaw in 1943 and Bethlehem in 2005. (I must have missed something—when was it exactly that the citizens of Bethlehem were dragged from their homes, shoved onto trains, and transported to their deaths?) Nor does the Met seem to find perverse the hatred dripping from the lips of the terrorist-in-charge when he taunts Klinghoffer with the words “America is one big Jew.” I could go on. There has to be a bottom line…and the use of Nazi-style imagery to defame the Jewish people—and by extension every single Jewish person—goes way beyond what any First Amendment supporter, such as myself, should find tolerable or defensible.