Metropolitan Opera to Perform a Political ‘Hot Potato’

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While I am not a big opera fan (as Dr. Donald Miller obviously is), I nevertheless do enjoy classical symphony and concerto music. But I found it interesting that the Metropolitan Opera has scheduled for next season performances of the opera The Death of Klinghoffer by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman. The Met’s premiere production in New York will be on October 20th, and is a co-production with the English National Opera whose performances began in February, 2012. David Robertson, currently music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, will conduct these Klinghoffer performances. According to the L.A. Times, the production “will be broadcast to cinemas in November as part of the Met’s Live in HD series … scheduled for Nov. 15 at 9:55 AM PST.” (The L.A. Times also notes that the Long Beach Opera will perform the controversial opera next month, March 16th and 22nd.)

Once again, we can expect the obsessively vexed and concerned to come out in the rain to protest these performances in New York this Fall. I assume the Met’s long time music director, James Levine, gave final approval to the programming, and is well aware of this opera’s controversial nature. Maybe Levine likes controversy. (I know I do.)

The opera is based on real events — the hijacking by Palestinian extremists of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murder of a handicapped passenger, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer. Klinghoffer’s two daughters Lisa and Ilsa attended the New York premiere in 1991 and were both angered by the opera. They believed that it exploited their father, and that it was inappropriate to mix the plight of the Palestinian people with the murder of an innocent Jewish man in an artistic work of this sort.

While the opera does convey the “plight of the Palestinians” it also attempts to treat the Israeli perspective equally. Mainly, perceptions of the opera are subjective.

However, according to the Guardian‘s review of the 2012 London performances, Klinghoffer is more of a “reflection” than a dramatization of the actual event. (For an actual dramatization of this international incident, you can see the film Voyage of Terror – The Achille Lauro Affair starring Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint.) The Guardian‘s Andrew Clements notes that “the absence of that narrative element in the text … robs the work of a real dramatic spine.”

So unlike that film which really was a dramatization, this opera really consists of scenes that don’t actually include the main events. It is really just a musical work which refers to historical events. In some ways, some people have suggested, it really seems more like an oratorio than an opera.

The opera was premiered in Belgium in March of 1991, and the U.S. premiere that year was by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. According to Wikipedia, planned performances in 1991 and 1992 did not take place because of protests. The opera was accused of being “anti-Semitic” and “sympathetic to terrorists.” And that despite the work’s lack of narrative. Nevertheless, because of the hypersensitivity and political correctness of our time, it ruined the career of librettist Alice Goodman.

However, in November of 2001 choral excerpts of that opera were scheduled to be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra but were cancelled due to the opera’s sensitive nature, given that was just two months after the September 11th attacks. Although at the time the opera’s composer John Adams stated, “I do think that symphonies and opera companies are very skittish in this country, and I’m sorry that they are, because it confirms the distressing image of symphony-goers as fragile and easily frightened. That’s really a shame, because I want to think of symphonic concerts as every bit as challenging as going to MOCA or to see ‘Angels in America.’”

The cancellation probably was just part of the modern-day hypersensitivity that afflicts many Americans now, certainly not out of political motivations. (But then, in 1982 the Boston Symphony Orchestra did cancel guest appearances by Vanessa Redgrave out of concern that such appearances could have provoked violence in reaction to her support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Redgrave sued the BSO and won on a count of breach of contract. During the trial, a witness stated that there was concern that such an appearance could affect the symphony’s funding from Jewish donors. But I digress.)

Given that these Metropolitan Opera performances of The Death of Klinghoffer this Fall will be 20+ years after the premiere — a time just following the Persian Gulf war and with sanctions and further U.S. government provocations of the Middle East — during current times of post-9/11 ultra-paranoia and political correctness and intolerance, I will not be surprised if there will be even more protests than before (and maybe even cancellations). In such circumstances, I hope that the Met’s music director of 40+ years, James Levine, will not cave and will let the show go on.

But FYI here is a review from the Chicago Tribune of a 2011 performance of Klinghoffer by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

And here is a video documentary produced by St. Louis PBS station KETC-9 about the opera and the St. Louis production and various associated controversies:

(Cross-posted on my blog.)

1:18 pm on February 25, 2014