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When Opera Suddenly Matters

Karen Rile

Written by
Published: October 31, 2014 at 8:37 PM [UTC]

NEW-YORK/KLINGHOFFER

I wish I could get to up to New York this weekend to see John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, a Metropolitan Opera production that has sparked protests at Lincoln Center and conflict in the press.

I also won't be able to attend one of the Met's live HD video broadcasts locally. Klinghoffer has been dropped from the Met's broadcast schedule because it's too controversial. And that's too bad—the Met's tagline for the production is "See it first. Then decide."

How often does a highbrow music production stir up passionate debate and civil disobedience? How often does art dare to address the raw-nerve political issues of the day? In my own lifetime, not much.

Most of the picketers outside Lincoln Center haven't seen the opera; many have never seen any opera. But suddenly, to them, it's important. Suddenly opera matters. John Adams matters. Contemporary music matters. Wouldn't it be great for the arts if the public suddenly felt passionate about symphonic music, ballet, chamber music, poetry?

Is this how it felt to be at the opening of The Rite of Spring in 1913? or Salome in 1905, or John Millington Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World, whose premiere touched off Irish nationalist riots in 1907?

In addition to civilian protesters, both against and in support of the production, politicians have not hesitated to jump into the fray. Former Mayor Rudy Giulani, an opera buff, was in the crowd denouncing Klinghoffer. Giuliani, who has read the libretto (you can, too: here) and listened to recordings, refuses to see the production. He was joined in his ire by former governors Pataki and Paterson and a bunch of congressmen and other politicians—and lambasted by current Mayor Bill de Blasio.

By contrast, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended opening night and was spotted giving a standing ovation, came out in favor of Klinghoffer in a talk last week at the University of California. “There was nothing anti-Semitic about the opera," she said. “The terrorists are not portrayed as people that you would like. Far from it."

THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER

Earlier this week I wrote a piece on the opera for JSTOR Daily, a publication that strives to contextualize current events with scholarly articles from its archives. In the article, which I hope you will read, I included interviews with a woman who attended the Met premiere last Monday and another who saw the original performance—also highly controversial—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991. There’s also a discussion and link to a highly readable essay by UCLA musicologist Robert Fink about the original premiere and why it was received so poorly by the public at the time.

Fink's idea, which is alluded to in Alex Ross' New Yorker essay on the opera, is so interesting in itself that I won't provide any spoilers except to say that a pivotal, problematic early scene was removed from the opera following the Brooklyn premiere 23 years ago.

According to Fink, the excision—a form of self-censorship in reaction to public opinion—changes the structure and balance of the opera in a way that introduces a different set of problems regarding its interpretation by audiences in the current political climate.

Some say the opera in its present form glamorizes terrorism, or that it is is immoral because it humanizes the characters of the PLO terrorists who murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a frail elderly man, during a cruise ship hijacking in 1985.

But I am struck by the words of Susan Scheid, a New York-based music blogger who attended Klinghoffer's highly controversial premiere of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991 and has tickets for the current performance.

“...it’s important to look deeply inside implacable conflicts like those in the Middle East, and to recognize that terror is not committed by alien beings, but by human beings. Failure to recognize that dooms us to more of the same," she says.

What, after all, is the purpose of art? To entertain us and bring us temporarily relief from the strife around us? I hope for something more.

My friend Tim Ribchester, a conductor, arranger, and pianist, published this thoughtful statement on his Facebook, which I repeat here with his permission:

"Art's purpose is to explore and unpack human sentiment and behavior, good and evil and all the ambiguities in between. It should not be censored. It should provoke fierce, impassioned, non-violent debate. I think it is wonderful that a contemporary work of art is engaging enough to cause the level of controversy currently enveloping Klinghoffer. It won't in itself bring us peace or resolution but it at least has provoked reflection and brought us back to the idea that art has influence beyond its escapist social bubble."

Photo credits: Reuters; Metropolitan Opera


From Kate Little
Posted on October 31, 2014 at 10:20 PM
Thank you, Karen. Yes, great art challenges.
From 104.10.136.114
Posted on November 1, 2014 at 4:45 AM
John Adam's music is boring. The opera will die because his music is incapable of carrying any freight. No point in protesting the theme of the opera because this opera is a dead end.
From 65.32.156.28
Posted on November 2, 2014 at 4:50 AM
John Adams, he's a minimalist, did you expect Schubert ? Minimalism can be very interesting and exciting .

From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 2, 2014 at 6:59 PM
Minimally interesting and minimally exciting. And no one will confuse Schubert, who excelled as a miniaturist, with John Adams who minimally excels.
From 74.64.34.232
Posted on November 2, 2014 at 7:22 PM
Ms Rile, I enjoyed your article, referred by Susan Schied, a compatriot and friend on the "Great Composers Appreciation Society." As a painter myself I'd like to think art, as well as opera, matters, particularly in this country, but alas, it only seems to matter when it challenges social and political givens, not aesthetic ones (unlike "Rite of Spring," with which I think you mistakenly conflate "Klinghoffer"). You mention Giuliani; I remember when he closed (or attempted to close?) a Brooklyn Museum show that included a painting that featured the Madonna alongside actual elephant dung. Giulini was not an art lover whose aesthetics were being challenged any more than most of the picketers cared about opera per se. I don't think the Met's brouhaha demonstrates that opera matters any more than Giuliani's religious outrage demonstrated that art matters to him. In fact both expressions of outrage only encourage the bad-boy behavior we've already had enough of recently, or artists trying to "transgress" social norms with sexual explicitness, political incorrectness--anything to create a facile succes de scandale. It's long been too easy to get attention this way, often (and maybe especially) when the content of the work otherwise is exceedingly shallow.

I once walked out on a production of "Klinghoffer"--not because of the politics but the ennui—though I revere most of Reich and Andriessen. Friends who saw the Met production walked out as well--though they loved "Nixon in China" and others of Adams. Nobody spends much time evaluating the music per se this time around, but history will ultimately judge, I guess. Art and opera matter, but not as much as we'd like in this country, and there's no way to cut corners to make it moreso.
Curt Barnes
www.curtbarnes.net

From 24.146.194.211
Posted on November 4, 2014 at 1:03 PM
"terror is not committed by alien beings, but by human beings. Failure to recognize that dooms us to more of the same"

Anyone who purposely targets innocent civilians for murder, loses their membership in the human race. Giuliani's comments were especially convincing, as he indeed attended the performance, carefully read the libretto and said that he still intends to otherwise patronize the Met in the future.

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on November 4, 2014 at 1:20 PM
"Terror is not committed by alien beings but by human beings."

I would submit that anyone who targets innocent civilians for murder, anyone who brutally murders an old, defenseless man in a wheelchair on a cruise ship and tosses him overboard for no reason other than that he was a Jew, has lost membership in the human race. How about an Opera to help us understand the humanity of those who lynched black people or Nazis who not only tortured but murdered millions of people and conducted unspeakable experiments on many of them before murdering them? If such perpetrators are human, I think I'd take my chances with aliens.

Giuliani was especially convincing, as indeed, he attended the performance, listened more than once to a recording and carefully studied the libretto before making his comments. For his statement please see www.thedailybeast.com/.../rudy-giuliani-why-i-protested.

Edit: I don't know how an earlier version of my comments - which I didn't see posted and so I repeated them with some modifications - got attributed to someone else. My opinions are my own and I take full responsibility for them.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on November 5, 2014 at 7:05 PM
Raphael, about the double-posting: This happened to me once before -- in a different blog. Non-members can post replies to blogs, although Laurie has to see and approve non-member comments before posting them.

When I didn't see my reply right away after I'd hit SUBMIT, I realized it was because I wasn't logged in. I signed in and resubmitted my feedback -- which appeared right away with my name on it. I added a line somewhere in the resubmit, asking Laurie to delete the anonymous duplicate, which she did.

It sounds like this is what happened here with you, but --?

From 108.2.197.86
Posted on November 6, 2014 at 11:01 AM
Curt Barnes,

Thank you for your comment. I am confused why you think I conflated Klinghoffer with Rite of Spring. My point was that there was a groundswell of passion about an artistic event. It was not meant to be a deep comparison.

I wonder what you mean that you walked out on a performance of Klinghoffer (presumably not this one) because of "the ennui". Do you mean that you thought the opera was boring? Just curious--I ask, not having had the opportunity to see it. Those I know who did see it report that they found it engaging on every level, but I have no first-hand experience so I am curious.

You're right, history will judge the opera in the end. I don't believe the Met was attempting a "succes de scandale" when they planned this production years ago, although it's true that the publicity has got people thinking about opera, and that's never a bad thing. And, look, my small column about this matter has brought you over to Violinist.com, and your signature has encouraged me (among others) to look at your website and admire your artwork.

From Karen Rile
Posted on November 6, 2014 at 11:01 AM
Curt Barnes,

Thank you for your comment. I am confused why you think I conflated Klinghoffer with Rite of Spring. My point was that there was a groundswell of passion about an artistic event. It was not meant to be a deep comparison.

I'm curious what you mean that you walked out on a performance of Klinghoffer (presumably not this one) because of "the ennui". Do you mean that you thought the opera was boring? Just curious--I ask, not having had the opportunity to see it. Those I know who did see it report that they found it engaging on every level, but I have no first-hand experience so I am curious.

You're right, history will judge the opera in the end. I don't believe the Met was attempting a "succes de scandale" when they planned this production years ago, although it's true that the publicity has got people thinking about opera, and that's never a bad thing. And, look, my small column about this matter has brought you over to Violinist.com, and your signature has encouraged me (among others) to look at your website and admire your artwork.

From Karen Rile
Posted on November 6, 2014 at 11:04 AM
Raphael, I think Jim is correct about how these double posts happen. I just accidentally did the same thing, not realizing that I was logged out when I posted my last comment.

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