Berkshire Opera fans who were looking forward to seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s production of "The Death of Klinghoffer" in a live HD production this fall will not get the opportunity unless Met General Manager Peter Gelb reconsiders his decision to cancel it. This unwise move made under pressure is compounded by its setting of an unfortunate precedent at a time when college students, faculties and various pressure groups feel increasingly entitled to stifle any form of speech they find offensive or disagreeable.
The opera is based on a real-life incident, the 1985 murder of disabled Jewish- American Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Mr. Klinghoffer, on vacation with his wife, was shot to death in his wheelchair and his body tossed off the deck. Six years later, the opera premiered, featuring music by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman.
The work has been praised by many, but also criticized for being, if not anti-Semitic, then too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and not sufficiently supportive of the Klinghoffers. All this should be left to the individual to decide, as has been the case with controversial operas, musicals, plays, movies, books and art works throughout history.
However, a number of Jewish organizations, most notably the Anti-Defamation League, successfully pressured Mr. Gelb into canceling the HD simulcast and the radio broadcast of the opera. Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, admits he has never seen the opera, enabling him to join the list of self-appointed censors over the decades who literally don’t know what it is they are talking about.
Mr. Foxman’s concern appears to be that the world-wide simulcast will trigger anti-Semitic acts around the planet. Opera, however, tends to preach to the converted, and it is difficult to imagine anti-Semites buying tickets to the opera and emerging to riot in the streets. If the opera is indeed sympathetic to Palestinians, the effect should be the opposite anyway. Mr. Foxman’s concerns defy logic, as does the response of Mr. Gelb, who is charged with standing up to pressure groups, not buckling under to them.
The opera has been produced routinely without incident for two decades, as will surely be the case when it is produced in New York City this coming season. That Mr. Gelb did not agree to cancel the production entirely as first demanded by the League should not be seen as a compromise, as there can be no compromising on issues of artistic freedom.
Ideally, the needless drama over "The Death of Klinghoffer" will generate increased interest in the work. Catholic organizations used to raise a ruckus over films they decided (without actually seeing them) were offensive to their beliefs until they finally released that all they were accomplishing was to provide free publicity for the films. While those protests were wrong-headed, no one was prevented from seeing the films in question. In the current case, however, the pressure groups and Mr. Gelb have deprived people of the opportunity to see the opera, which cannot happen when free expression is already under assault by political correctness.
Art is supposed to anger, challenge and provoke thought that may be disquieting and disturbing to the viewer or listener. If "The Death of Klinghoffer" does any or all of those things it should be staged and applauded. Those who fear they will be offended by the opera have the right to stay home -- a missed opportunity -- but they have no right to deprive others of seeing it. Mr. Gelb still has time to reverse his decision and he should without delay.