Our Man in New York: Protest maligns powerful music at The Met

rolnick new york

New York is no stranger to protests and demonstrations, but the Klinghoffer Affair last month was a rarity. The leaders of the protest were Manhattan’s Good, Great and Affluent. Many wearing expensive suits, yarmulkes, the Israeli flag flying high, speakers and crowd shouted to non-comprehending outsiders, “Shame On Gelb!” or “No More Met.”

Peter Gelb is the Director of the Metropolitan Opera. He had the chutzpah to schedule a 14-year-old opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, by the prestigious John Adams. While nobody I spoke to in this audience had seen the opera or read anything but selected samples of the libretto, the virulence and the hatred resonated out to the Met Opera building itself, across the street from the demonstrations.

The creation of that strange evening was, to this writer, a unique combination of arrogance and ignorance. Yet in another way, it was a very New York kind of affair. Here’s some background: Canada hasn’t yet seen The Death of Klinghoffer, although Montreal conductor Kent Nagano had conducted and recorded the opera in Europe. But Adams sees opera as an exercise in contemporary news (like his Nixon in China). And here, by dramatizing one incident, he was hoping to show the infinite complexities of an insoluble religious, geographical, demographic, demagogic situation.

His particular situation here was, of course, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 by four armed Palestinian terrorists. Herding the 400 passengers on an upper deck, they found the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, shot him in the head and dumped his body overboard.

This was undoubtedly a horrendous act. But to Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, every act has a cause; people are not born to violence. And in this opera, both the Arabs and the Jews give way to their own, sometimes banal, motivations. In a prologue, the Arab refugees have a most powerful chorus. Immediately after, the Arabs doff their dress, becoming the Jews of another chorus. Together both choruses resonate with the same passion as Verdi’s famed chorus of the exiled Jews in Nabucco. After the prologue, Klinghoffer is less an opera than a series of tableaux, where the characters sing of their mainly mundane lives, their hatreds and loves.

I personally am not fond of the opera, since I don’t believe that the music and lyrics go together. But this doesn’t detract from the truly powerful music. The choruses, of course, one Arab’s monologue on his love of music, and Mrs. Klinghoffer’s final monologue about her husband, which goes from hatred of the assassins to the love of her life with this man.

And now we come to the crux of the matter. The opera had been produced several times before, even in New York, yet nobody complained. A few months ago, it came to the attention of Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Mr. Foxman had never seen Klinghoffer, knew nothing about it, but had heard that some of the statements in it were anti-Semitic.

He was correct, for these were the lines of the Palestinians. Then again, Arab terrorists were not expected to sing about the glories of knishes and bagels.

Foxman, though, approached Gelb, and they worked on a compromise. The Met would produce Klinghoffer, but, unlike its other operas, it would not be broadcast.

Little did Foxman realize that he too would become an object of official hatred.

For now, like the Klinghoffer opening choruses, the crowd of official naysayers would crescendo.

Right-wing radio hosts and Evangelicals heard that anti-Semitism was running rampant in New York. Rabbis whispered from their podiums that they couldn’t believe such an opera would be produced. Jewish and Israeli committees, joined the chorus. And while they had no direct knowledge of the opera, they could select excerpts of the admittedly unprintable anti-Semitic songs by the Palestinians.

These excerpts were sent to a huge database of Israeli sympathizers. Implied was that there was no reason to read or hear any more than this. The opera, by definition, defiled the death of Mr. Klinghoffer (as the man’s daughters affirmed), thus it defiled Judaism and it should not be produced at all. Or if it is produced, nobody should go to see it.

Alas, we music critics had our own arrogance and dismissed these talkers, retreating to the Solitary Halcyon of Great Art. What did we need with ignorance?

We were wrong. The refrains increased, and while Gelb stood firm (seen with contempt by anti- and pro-Klinghoffer-ites), the anti-opera people got their act together, with quantity and quality. Not only did the composer give more music to the Palestinians, but, according to one critic, “The Palestinian music is better written.”

(Whatever the truth, we always want our operatic villains like Iago and Scarpia to be more dramatic.)

And with this buildup, about 500 listened to a chorus of congress people, rabbis, leaders, businessmen fulminate with all their vocal might, beginning at 5pm on the night of the opening, October 20, and continuing for three hours.

The calls threatened blackmail (“The Jewish community supports the Met, and without our money, it won’t survive.”); history (“When they see this opera, America will hate the Jews.”); a ‘We-Don’t-Want-No-Education’ ignorance (“Why see this filth? You don’t have to swim in a cesspool to know it’s a cesspool!”); and the Enemy List, a list which included not only Peter Gelb (“A moral moron”), but New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York Times, United Nations and that “arch compromiser, Abraham Foxman”.

The more moderate speakers repeated words from the Chinese Politburo and the Inquisition: “If they come and apologize, we will forgive them.”

I stayed for 90 difficult minutes of endless speakers, insults, and posters carried by people who took pride in being Know Nothings. And then I wended my way through the common people and went in to see the opera.

From a supposedly highly educated group, this was emotion pure and simple, feeding on itself, refusing to acknowledge certain facts. Yet they made their points, the tabloids ran their headlines, the Times wrote a straight news article, it was covered internationally.

The opera went on and it will continue until November 15. The music reviews were basically positive, but not extraordinary. As I said, critics keep their noses (and ears) in the air.

The unpublished irony was that ten years ago the opera had been made into a movie, to be the highlight of the Palestinian Film Festival. It was never shown because it was deemed to be too pro-Jewish, too anti-Palestinian.

And this writer’s only consolation was a prominent poster reading “Tenors and Terrorists Don’t Mix.” That was the only true poster in the demonstration. For not even an Arab terrorist would want to socialize with an operatic tenor!

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