Klinghoffer and Artistic Freedom Die

Klinghoffer dies twice

Klinghoffer dies twice

If you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry or any combination of these, the recent tragic aria sung at the Metropolitan Opera House should make you shiver.

Those of us who create for a living already face sufficient obstacles – the demands of the work itself and the fickle nature of the marketplace immediately come to mind. We are not, then, generally in favor of additional exasperation.

But that’s what Peter Gelb, who runs the Met, delivered to composer John Adams when he called him last Sunday. Yes, the Met would still produce his opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” next season but it would also cancel the broadcast of a performance in HD through its growing network of movie houses worldwide. The reason for this action, Gelb said, is the objection by some Jewish groups worried that though the opera itself is not anti-Semitic its themes and libretto humanizes all of the characters, even the perpetrators of an inhumane acts, and this could be misinterpreted in countries in which anti-Semitism is on the rise.

There is of course a legitimate reason for the existence of The Anti-Defamation League, and for the many other global organizations trying to expose systematic hatred. But the question here is, how far should the work of organizations guarding against the terrible consequences of bigotry extend, especially as it intrudes on artistic freedom? We’re not talking, after all, about Hitler mounting a display of “Degenerate Art,” showing Jews in the most unflattering ways. “Klinghoffer” is a genuine work of art that can be interpreted in a thousand ways by the thousand people who may see it at any HD movie theater.

When we sit at our our computer screens or at our pianos to compose operas we should be addressing the very things in our culture that raise such issues of conflict and propriety. The damage done by censorship in the name of preventing some untoward event that might happen is indefensible.

I love the Met. I go to many HD performances, and occasionally to live ones. I understand that’s is expensive to put on shows, especially when some stagehands earn $400,000 a year, and you need a lot of donors, and many of those donors also give to the Anti-Defamation League.

Nevertheless I want to see “Klinghoffer” not at the Met but in my usual place in a town in Connecticut where once there was an informal but effective ban against selling property to the likes of me.

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2 Responses to Klinghoffer and Artistic Freedom Die

  1. Carmen Fernández English says:

    Leon Klinghoffer was an innocent civilian in a wheelchair, who did not just die but in fact was murdered by four Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship on which he was vacationing, demanding of Israel to release 50 political prisoners, and of Syria to give them political asylum. When Syria refused, they shot Klinghoffer to death and threw his body overboard. And that is where the problem with “The Death Of Klinghoffer” only begins; the title is as “unbiased” as if it had read, “50 Palestinians Sojourning in Israel” or “Four Palestinians Go Cruising”—unacceptable.

    If the Anti-Defamation League has a place in the world (and of course it does), then it must protest, and protect against, not only physical but also implied defamation, and in this opera’s title the defamation lies in the omission of the raw truth. I do applaud John Adams’ giving both the Israeli and the Palestinian side a fair voice in the opera per se, but tweaking a harsh reality with lethargic neutrality just to make it more palatable for everyone is particularly unfair. And to be surprised that this might be perceived as anti-Semitic, naïve.

    In condoning the need of the Defamation League in the world, pure “Artistic Freedom” with zero censorship is unattainable—a line has been drawn in the sand. But then we can’t even agree whether graffiti for art’s sake is “defamation” or the ultimate expression of artistic freedom! You say that, “The damage done by censorship in the name of preventing some untoward event that might happen is indefensible.” Really? Is throwing a highly sophisticated piece with an intentionally (I assume) ambiguous title and context such as “The Death Of Klinghoffer”, and all its potential for self-righteous interpretation, not an incendiary proposition in an already extremely hateful and bloodthirsty world? Remember the “anti-Islam” cartoon that was published in Denmark, and the havoc it wreaked? As the foundation for a debate on censorship at the highest, most philosophical level, on a university campus or at the UN I would be the first to sign up—on the streets of Bagdad or Gaza or Newtown today, no!

    And finally, I don’t think Peter Gelb’s decision not to produce “The Death of Klinghoffer” in HD film, worldwide jeopardizes “artistic freedom”. The opera will be performed in its entirety, uncensored (except for a scene deleted by the composer John Adams himself), at one of the most prestigious establishments in the world, The Metropolitan Opera House, in the original format of opera it was conceived. Gelb’s decision not to sign off on mass-producing what he believes to be highly controversial material is his prerogative. I happen to agree with the timing of his decision, and wonder how different his decision might have been had anti-Semitism and other rampant hate crime, national and international, been on the decline.

    I hope the debate may continue!

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